INSIDE THE BELTWAY: With the election fiasco in the rear view mirror, President Bush's policies take center stage

With the election behind us, attention is now being paid to, of all things, policy.

With the election behind us, attention is now being paid to, of all things, policy.

The Administration, which displayed such sure-footed PR throughout the campaign and in avoiding a recount, has stumbled a bit and even tipped its hand in an unfortunate way earlier this month.

First of all, President Bush had to deny a statement by Chief of Staff Andrew Card (never a sign of a smooth well-oiled machine) that the White House would eliminate the National AIDS Policy Office and an Office on the President's Initiative for One America. No one was surprised - AIDS policy and race relations were never important in the Bush world-view - but the announcement did seem premature, and was promptly retracted.

More to the point, and not very widely noted except in The Wall Street Journal - which should know - was a decision to abandon the Government's program to attempt to close the 'digital divide.'

The Commerce Department will show in its budget for the next fiscal year - the one beginning October 1, 2001 - a cut of nearly two-thirds in the Technology Opportunities Program, from a hardly robust dollars 42 million down to a barely breathing dollars 15 million.

This is - or was - the source of small but key grants for technology centers to inner-city schools and laptops for students to teach Web surfing and e-mail to senior citizens.

At a time when slightly less than half of all Americans have no regular access to a computer, much less the Internet, the term 'digital divide' has real significance as we brag of a steady shift to e-commerce. Non-use of a computer seems incredible to those who make policy and comment on it.

The administration which talks of 'leaving no child behind' seems disposed now to leave at least half behind - and to be in retreat from methods to help them catch up.

And some appointees may not have the message. At a recent press conference, new FCC chairman Michael Powell had the ill-grace to say the 'digital divide' was like a 'Mercedes divide - I'd like to have one, I can't afford one.' Even granting the fact that his father, the Secretary of State, spent years earning the price of two Mercedes convertibles every time he spoke in public, a good PR man could have told Powell it was hardly the appropriate analogy. Great as is the Mercedes' turn ratio, let's say, it's hardly comparable to an inner city or rural kid who thinks 'You've got mail' means it's time to head down to the post office.

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