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Bush Invokes Taft-Hartley Act, Forces Open West Coast Ports

By Peter G. Gosselin and James Gerstenzang

When President Bush invoked a rarely used labor law to force the re-opening of West Coast ports earlier this week, he struck a double blow: one against what government lawyers argued was a threat to economic and national security, and a second against a potential threat to Republican political security.

Bush’s first use of the Taft-Hartley Act in nearly a quarter century followed a carefully choreographed process in which business groups and administration officials ratcheted up warnings about the economic and military dangers of the shutdown while the president stayed above the fray.

Even when he finally acted, Bush was careful to appear even-handed, noting in an executive order, for example, that the shutdown was the result of a management “lockout” rather than a strike by workers.

But a close look at the president’s actions suggests that they were motivated by more than the immediate effects of the shutdown.

Recent polls show that even as official Washington is riveted by the prospect of war with Iraq, ordinary Americans are more concerned about the fragile state of the economy. By putting an end to the shutdown, Bush was able to act decisively on both issues, and to present himself as addressing voter worries.

Bush “may have legitimate concerns about the shutdown, but his actions have the happy side effect of making him look like he’s doing something about the economy,” said American University political scientist James A. Thurber.

The most recent poll on voters’ concerns, a survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center released Thursday, found that 55 percent of people questioned identified the economy as the single issue they most wanted candidates to address in the fall elections, up from 20 percent in June and far ahead of the 22 percent who are most concerned about the war on terrorism.

“People recognize the importance of the war; they’re concerned about terrorism,” said center director Andrew Kohut. “But if you think politically, the economy is closer to home for most people.”

In entering the fray and putting a stop to the shutdown, Bush had to traverse some tricky political terrain, according to aides and observers. He had to reassure the GOP’s traditional business base that he would act, yet hold off until the damaging consequences of the lockout were widely apparent. He had to hang onto what few labor allies the Republican administration has, especially those in the Teamsters union, and not anger pro-labor Democrats in Congress whose backing he needs on Iraq and other issues.

The administration handled its business base by intervening early in contract talks between the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and by threatening drastic action if no settlement were reached.