Bush’s Approach To Congress Critical To His Future

Posted April 1, 2003 at 3:02pm

In 2000, I helped lead a series of seminars on how the various candidates for president would govern if elected. The series included several on then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R). They focused pretty intensively on the Bush experience as governor — one in which he, stuck in the Texas system as a relatively weak governor, faced a strong Legislature dominated by Democrats. He navigated a careful and savvy bipartisan course, with Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock as his mentor and co-pilot. [IMGCAP(1)]

The seminars were rich, detailed and informative. Unfortunately, they didn’t tell us much that would have predicted the course that President Bush has navigated with Congress. At the beginning of his presidency, Bush faced a challenge seemingly even more formidable than he had as governor. He had been elected in controversy, with a cloud that persisted for 36 days and had not dispelled by the inauguration. He had demonstrated negative coattails — his party lost seats in both houses of Congress as he got elected, including a big loss of five seats in the Senate, erasing a comfortable majority.

Logic suggested an incremental and conciliatory approach to policy, with the emphasis on bipartisanship or nonpartisanship. Instead, Bush went immediately for a bold and sweeping tax cut, jammed it through the House quickly on a near-pure party-line vote, and moved as quickly as he could to push the Senate, with as few Democrats as he could get away with, to follow suit. And he succeeded, even after the setback of seeing the Senate switch party control barely four months into his tenure. Remarkably, Bush got more than 90 percent of what he had asked for and got his tax cut enacted into law at an earlier date than President Ronald Reagan — elected in a landslide, with huge coattails in both houses — had been able to sign his signature tax-cut bill. By any measure, it was a breathtaking achievement for Bush.

To be sure, Bush simultaneously used a centrist and bipartisan approach to his second priority, education, cutting quickly to the chase and negotiating a compromise with two liberal Democrats, Sen. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and Rep. George Miller (Calif.). But any expectation that the Bush White House would follow the two initial victories with the same approach, mixing tough and hard partisan pressure on one issue with conciliatory bipartisanship on another, was quickly dashed. Thereafter and throughout the 107th Congress, the Bush approach to the House and Senate was basically the “my way or the highway” approach of his first tax cut. (Interestingly, the path of foreign policy was parallel: After early episodes on tough non-negotiation on the Kyoto protocol and the ABM treaty mixed with delicate and subtle diplomacy on the crisis over a downed and captured air crew with China, the strategy reverted — especially post-Sept. 11, 2001 — to a more consistently hard-nosed approach.)

The partisan strategy worked, especially with the decision later in 2002 to put the onus of responsibility on the Democratic Senate and to stymie efforts led by then-Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) to pass legislation and negotiate deals with the House and the White House. The proof was in the pudding — historic gains in the House and the recapture of the Senate, widely attributed to the first instance of presidential coattails in a midterm election. With the momentum from last November, and full agenda control back in GOP hands, it was no surprise that the White House would opt for a robust tax-cut package as its top domestic priority and would continue and even intensify its “my way or the highway” approach to Congress.

Big mistake. As Republican leaders in Congress have learned, to their chagrin, holding all the reins of power is not all it is cracked up to be. Freed from the responsibility of governing and the need to get 51 votes to be in the ballgame, Senate Democrats can fully use the levers of the minority in the Senate, with little fear of being blamed by voters for policy constipation — after all the president and his party have the power, so they should be able to make things work. Shades of Bill Clinton and the Democrats in 1993-94. Moreover, Senate Democrats have become more recalcitrant and suspicious of the White House since the 2002 campaign, in which many believe the president cynically attacked them and exploited the homeland security and national security issues for naked partisan advantage.

White House officials are also experiencing the price of hubris. Their attitude has been to treat Congressional Republicans as field lieutenants and generals, carrying out the orders coming from Central Command at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Even the reflexively loyal GOPers on the Hill can be pushed too far, and many Republicans, facing their own level of accountability and their own constituent needs and demands, are starting to push back. It took yeoman efforts from House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) to keep just enough of their troops on board to pass their budget. A 12-vote margin, under these circumstances, will be harder to keep in line than last Congress’ six-vote margin.

Someday, perhaps soon, the war with Iraq will end, and the domestic agenda will re-emerge front and center. Despite the setbacks and the hand-wringing, there is a very great chance that this war will end with an American victory, and with lots of Iraqis surfacing, when they are certain Saddam Hussein and his cronies are gone, to tell heart-rending and hair-raising tales of butchery in the Hussein regime. (If you don’t believe that, read the chilling Sports Illustrated story a couple of weeks ago about the torture and murder by Hussein’s sadistic son of athletes and coaches who didn’t measure up.)

If so, Bush may well end up with an 80 percent-plus approval rating, a huge influx of political capital and a deep resolve to use it on his domestic priorities, which of course are dominated by ever-larger tax cuts.

How he approaches Congress to spend that political capital is a critical question, the answer to which may determine the course of the next 18 months and the future of the Bush presidency. If enhanced hubris leads to an even more belligerent “my way or the highway” attitude, instead of a more balanced and nuanced approach with a healthy dose of bipartisanship, the Bush team may find dealing with the U.N. Security Council more fulfilling than dealing with the U.S. Congress.