Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) remembers then-Gov. George W. Bush once asking about that burly low-key guy from Illinois who happened to be third in line to the presidency.
“I think there was a sense of respect from afar,” Portman said of the future chief executive’s curiosity about Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). “But I don’t think they knew what kind of relationship would develop.”
That question has been answered decisively in the ensuing period. Hastert, once a mysterious far-off figure in the president’s political universe, has come to be perhaps Bush’s closest ally and confidant in Congress.
The relationship has given the Speaker a significant degree of influence in the development of the White House’s agenda as Bush has come to rely on Hastert’s assessment of what’s “doable” on Capitol Hill.
Aides to both men say the president meets privately at the White House with Hastert usually twice a month to discuss developments on the Hill. (Sometimes the chats take place in the president’s personal residence, according to the sources.) When Bush indicated he would seek re-election, it was Hastert who immediately moved out front to solicit support for the campaign from GOP Members — financial backing, in particular.
“The president has great respect for the Speaker’s judgment — has every reason to have great respect for the Speaker’s judgment — because the Speaker has continued to deliver,” Commerce Secretary Donald Evans said.
Evans cited the Speaker’s success in winning passage of the Bush administration’s three major tax-cut packages and trade promotion authority, among other issues.
“All you have to do is look at the performance over the last two-and-a-half years,” Evans said. “The Speaker in the House has delivered time and time and time again.”
Perhaps never before has the president needed to lean on the Speaker’s abilities to the extent that Bush will in the next month, with key presidential initiatives on prescription drugs and energy suddenly joined in the queue by a controversial $87 billion emergency funding request for the war and reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Insiders say it was Hastert who persuaded Bush to quash efforts to pass a Social Security reform measure — a top Bush priority — before the midterm elections.
Senior advisers to the president, including political guru Karl Rove, had argued that the issue could be a winner for Republicans.
But Hastert saw that his Conference wasn’t ready to take the plunge, and the debate would likely expose frictions with the White House that could be exploited by the Democrats.
“When I was there it was something that people just knew — that the president and Hastert trusted one another,” said Kirk Blalock, a former senior Bush aide.
One lobbyist close to the White House put Bush’s feelings more bluntly: “The guy [Bush] really loves is Hastert.”
Love is of course too strong a word. But there is famously little distance between loyalty and affection in Bush’s personal reckoning of things.
And loyalty is not established overnight. While the president knew key lawmakers such as Portman and Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) before he arrived in Washington in 2001, Bush can hardly be said to have cultivated significant personal relationships since he got here.
In fact, not even Hastert is said to be a close personal friend of the president’s, though there is some disagreement on this point among those who know Bush.
Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan describes it as a “great working relationship and a great personal friendship.” But Congressional aides and some of Bush’s associates are careful to suggest that what has developed between the two top Republicans is a more exclusively professional arrangement.
“He’s not part of the Bush crowd,” said John Feehery, the Speaker’s press secretary, adding that it would “not be an easy fit” personally between the two men.
By way of contrast, Feehery cited White House Congressional liaison David Hobbes, a former top House staffer, and Vice President Cheney, with whom the Speaker goes fishing, as close personal friends of Hastert’s.
Bush and Hastert do share a couple of important characteristics, though, according to the people who know them: an affection for the world outside the capital and an emphasis on results. These are universally cited as key to the bond that has developed between the two men.
“The Speaker is certainly very clear, very straightforward, very decisive, very proactive — a can-do kind of spirit,” said Evans, one of Bush’s oldest friends. “And that’s the kind of leadership style the president respects and admires.”
Adds one former White House official, “The president has never wanted people who were yes-men around him. When he thinks people are not just giving him what they think he wants to hear, he respects that person.”
Just as important, some suggest, is the apparent guilelessness of the Speaker. The president is famously suspicious of Washington’s political culture and frowns on overweening displays of personal ambition.
That works well with Hastert, who didn’t so much seek the Speakership as default into it during a time of crisis in the GOP’s Congressional ranks.
“[Hastert] doesn’t have his own personal agenda,” Portman said, suggesting such reticence makes him more trustworthy to Bush.
Feehery put it this way: “Denny’s a nose-to-the-grindstone kind of guy,” he said. “He’s not trying to run for president — unlike everyone in the Senate.”
Listening to Hastert
By all accounts, the original tax debate in 2001, shortly after Bush took office, was seminal in cementing the bond between Hastert and Bush.
Given the measure’s price tag, Hastert told Bush that the best course of action would be to break the 10-year, $1.6 trillion proposal into its component parts, believing Members would have an easier time voting for smaller measures that could be individually sold to voters than for the full agglomeration of cuts.
Hastert’s proposed tactic met with significant resistance at the White House, where senior Bush administration officials worried it would ultimately hand Congress an excuse to settle for half-measures when they felt comprehensive action was necessary to stimulate the economy.
These officials were backed up by conservatives in Hastert’s own Conference who thought the Speaker’s approach would signal that the GOP had in fact been cowed by criticism from the Democrats and the media that the package was too large.
The president sided with Hastert and ultimately got a deal with moderate Democrats in the Senate that ensured passage of a $1.3 trillion measure. (Democratic leaders insisted the package was in fact somewhat larger when various budgetary factors were considered.)
In the ensuing weeks and months, Bush felt he could trust his agenda to Hastert’s expertise in the legislative process.
“You’ll see that Hastert, very methodically, took each of [Bush’s agenda items] and passed them through the House,” one former White House aide said, citing, among other things, legislation that overhauled federal policy on education, as well as the president’s cherished plan to enable “faith-based” groups to receive federal dollars for charitable activities.
“In the first six months the president got pretty much everything done that he promised in the campaign,” the former aide said. “And Hastert drove the train.”
In important ways this was part of a larger strategic course chosen by Hastert at the outset of the Bush presidency, insiders say. Its central idea was that whatever helped the president helped the GOP-controlled House.
This logic may seem axiomatic by now, with the president enjoying reasonably high approval ratings and with the evidence of Bush’s impact on last year’s midterm elections. But Bush came into office as a president who lost the popular vote and was considered to have a weak mandate to govern.
Nick Calio, the White House’s former top lobbyist on Capitol Hill, said the Speaker made the ground rules clear from the start: Policy differences would be kept to a minimum, and mostly out of view.
“[Hastert] made it clear that they would not allow bills that would be vetoed to reach the president’s desk,” Calio said.
Bush has yet to veto a bill.