President Bush has been taking a beating from the Right lately. On a handful of issues, conservative members of his own party have been heaping abuse on his administration. Has Bush gone wobbly?
Here's the narrative, as articulated by those ladling out the scorn.
The president, in his final months in office, is casting about for a few "legacy" items rather than worrying about what's right for the country and what's good for his party. He is being betrayed by a lack of discipline and focus in the White House, and he's listening to bad ideas. Bush is no longer reliable on global warming, and he's so desperate for a term-ending deal with the North Koreans that he's prepared to give away the store to get it. The gap between the lame-duck president and the Republicans on Capitol Hill is widening, as he looks toward history and they look toward November. Only direct and vigorous agitation by faithful conservatives will stiffen Bush's spine and keep him from straying off the reservation.
As narratives go, this one is useful. It illuminates one perspective on the final months of the Bush presidency, and it says as much about the narrators as it does about the White House occupant.
Last month, former diplomat John Bolton contemptuously compared Bush to Bill Clinton--or even Jimmy Carter. The president's policy on North Korea--get a deal before January at any cost--amounts to "surrender," Bolton said.
Current and former White House officials aren't buying any of this. "We're not looking at legacies," says Tony Fratto, the deputy White House press secretary. "That's not a word that's allowed to be uttered in this building."
But there's no question that departing presidents have different agendas from members of Congress, even those of their own party, who are seeking re-election. And unusually powerful dynamics are attending the exit of this president, this year. In recent polls, Bush's approval ratings have sunk to 28 percent--in contrast to those of Presidents Clinton and Reagan, who, as they left office, scored 66 percent and 63 percent, respectively.
But Bush remains sufficiently popular in his own party, with more than 60 percent of Republicans approving of the job he's doing. And he is still a formidable fundraiser. All of this complicates matters for Republican officeholders. In some ways, for better and for worse, they are tied to him and his record. But they can slip a knot here and there--and when that happens, it's usually over a set of issues entirely different from those that have the Right so exercised.
North Korea and global warming are not electability issues to those who fear that the president is going soft. Such issues are mainly useful in rallying the faithful. Fratto says of the conservative activists who have boasted about their resistance to Bush's perceived turn on climate change, "I'm sure it helps their association-building."
But Rep. John Shimkus isn't going to lose his House seat because voters in his conservative Illinois district are afraid that Bush will go too far on global warming. (It's not as though the Democrats are offering a do-less alternative.) Nor will the Southern California constituents of hawkish Rep. Ed Royce chuck him out of office because the president harbors hopes of completing a deal with North Korea.
The congressional elections are a lot more likely to hinge on the mortgage crisis, gasoline prices, economic growth, farm support, and the war in Iraq. These are the issues that are causing Capitol Hill Republicans to drift away from the White House--not in huge numbers, not in a wave, but in a steady drip, drip on one particular bill after another. And the movement is to the left, not to the right--although, at least in some cases, it's about lawmakers seeking government action (and money) to address their constituents' troubles. For seven years, individual Republicans have clashed with the White House over various issues, but Bush is weaker now than ever, and his party's frustration and anxiety are mounting as November approaches.
Consider the mortgage relief bill that Rep. Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who heads the House Financial Services Committee, is shepherding through Congress. Rep. Steven LaTourette, a Republican from northeast Ohio, is full of praise for Frank and was pleased that the committee accepted his amendment to allow states with low real estate values to get more aid. The White House denounces the bill as a bailout. Bush brought Republican legislators (including LaTourette) to the White House on May 7 and promised to veto it.
"Seventy-two-hundred adjustable-rate mortgages will reset in Mentor next year," LaTourette says of one of the bigger towns in his district. "The foreclosure crisis impacts the entire nation, but Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania are at the epicenter. The brand name 'subprime' equals horrible."
Somehow, he says, he has to try to persuade the people running the White House to come around. "I don't think they have reached the same conclusion as to what the solution should be as we have on Capitol Hill. And, yeah, that's a surprise," LaTourette says. "Conservative Republicans see it as a bailout. I don't."
Fratto says that Frank's bill would take money from prudent, careful homebuyers who haven't gotten into trouble. The thinking behind the bill, he maintains, is this: "Let's tax these people and give the money to the bad actors." The subprime meltdown stems from "egregious acts" by mortgage brokers, lenders, and borrowers, he says. "They signed on to a Ponzi scheme. Those people are nothing but speculators.
"We don't do bailouts."
Fratto also argues that the mortgage crisis hasn't been as bad as feared, in part because mortgage rates have not risen that much.
"Quite frankly," LaTourette says, "the reason we're in the minority today is because this administration--and I love them--they didn't keep their eye on the things that are important in districts like mine." And for the first time in his career, LaTourette is facing a strong Democratic challenger this fall. "We're sympathetic to the problems he's facing," Fratto says. "And we're most sympathetic to the people in his district and what they're going through."
The mortgage mess is hardly confined to the Rust Belt. Florida is among the hardest-hit states, and GOP Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite also voted for the Frank bill.
"It's absolutely the right thing to do when people are struggling," she says. "When you look at the number of foreclosures in Florida alone, and in other states, the role of government isn't to bail them out but give them a helping hand, and that's what really this is. If it were a different economy, I probably would say, let the market work itself out. But at a time when people are struggling to pay for their gas to get to jobs, when job insecurity is there, when the housing market has slowed down so that even if they wanted to sell their house they couldn't--you put all of those things together, and I think it's the responsible thing to do."
Brown-Waite says that the White House's opposition doesn't discourage her. "No. I go home on weekends, I see people our office has helped--people who are having problems with foreclosures. And it's not just Florida that's hurting. It needs to be a bipartisan approach."
Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri, another Republican, has a different problem. For five years, he's been trying to change the law governing loans by the Small Business Administration. Graves wants to do away with a provision that bars the SBA from lending money to companies that rely on venture capital fund investments. The northwestern corner of Missouri, he says, is full of small biotech firms oriented toward agriculture; a number of them got their seed money from venture capitalists because their business is "super-high capital-intensive."
Finally, this year, Graves got his idea written into the SBA reauthorization bill sponsored by Rep. Solomon Ortiz, a Texas Democrat. The White House opposes the bill--and it particularly opposes Graves's venture capital proposal.
"These companies are doing super-important work. Curing cancer, fighting bioterrorism--everything in between," Graves says. "This is one that I definitely believe in. It's always frustrating when the White House opposes you. I've talked repeatedly to the administration. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. I just hope they look at this."
According to Fratto, the venture capital amendment is just another case of a member of Congress promoting a pet project that the White House opposes. For the president's staff, it's a question of weighing what may seem like an urgent need, locally, against what's best for the nation.
"I represent the 6th District in Washington," Graves responds. "I don't represent Washington in the 6th District." Like LaTourette, he is facing the most serious challenge to his seat this year, from the former Democratic mayor of Kansas City, Mo. Graves also strongly backs the farm bill, which the administration denounces. "The president--I've gone around with him on this. There's just not a lot of interest in the farm program," he says. "Like the small-business bill, I try and try and try, and depending on who's advising the president, I never get through.
"I don't know how the White House works."
One common complaint about the administration these days is sloppiness. The Bush White House used to be a tight ship, but now its friends aren't sure who is in charge. California's Royce says he believes that the State Department has taken control of policy on North Korea--with what he sees as alarming results.
Myron Ebell, of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, mistrusts Joshua Bolten, the White House chief of staff, as too sympathetic to the idea that something has to be done about global warming. He also worries that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. is privately advocating a cap-and-trade regime on carbon emissions--because he's from Wall Street, and what does Wall Street like better than any opportunity to get in on a trading scheme? "I think there are very disparate voices within the administration on [reducing carbon emissions]," says Ben Lieberman, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.
On financial regulation, meanwhile, Treasury and the Securities and Exchange Commission appear to be reading from different pages. Nicholas Calio, who was Bush's assistant for legislative affairs in the early days of the first term, when discipline was legendary (and who watched the wind-up of Bush's father's administration from the same post), puts it this way: "Toward the end, things can get sloppy."
Heritage's Lieberman worries that people in the administration are already thinking about their next jobs and how to land them. Others see the White House tending to go on autopilot.
Earlier this year, the Homeland Security Department's Bureau of Customs and Border Protection gave notice that it was planning to recalculate tariffs on certain imports. It based the tariffs on the goods' final purchase price before entering the U.S., rather than on the "first sale" price--in other words, setting tariffs on goods after they have passed through foreign middlemen, not before. Critics complain that the change could raise duties on some imports by 15 percent. Companies that rely on imported goods--with Nike prominent among them--began agitating to block the new rule.
Nike's home-state senators--Republican Gordon Smith and Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon--asked Homeland Security to reconsider. They argued, among other things, that the customs and border patrol agency doesn't have the legal standing to make such a change unilaterally, and that officials there didn't consult Congress.
"At a time when we are looking for ways to provide stimulus to our economy, we are concerned that the proposed action could undermine essential elements of that goal by potentially raising consumer prices," the senators wrote in a letter to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff that was signed by eight other Republican senators and seven other Democrats. A bipartisan coalition of House members sent a similar letter.
Lobbyists who are fighting the rule change say that it's symptomatic of what has gone wrong with Customs, where Bush administration officials are so focused on homeland security that they barely consider questions of prosperity or trade promotion anymore. (The agency notes that most other nations have dropped the first-sale calculation, and that the change is in line with a finding by the World Customs Organization.)
All of these complaints involve bread-and-butter issues on which members of Congress thrive. Medicaid rules, pay-discrimination legislation, meat inspections, student loans, relief for salmon fishermen--on these, too, congressional Republicans have been veering away from the White House. Legions of GOP lawmakers have snubbed the president on the farm bill. The disagreement in this case is so broad that, in a sense, it's hardly anything special. Bush has argued for several years--to little avail--that the federal government shouldn't be providing large subsidies to wealthy farmers. "In the end," says Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, "members have a remarkable ability to pass pretty expensive farm bills in election years."
"We need a farm bill," says Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, one Republican who is running for re-election. "This bill's going to get broad bipartisan support. If the president were to veto it, I think it would be overridden. I'd certainly vote to."
In Line on Iraq
On one big issue--for many, the defining issue of the Bush years--Republicans find it more difficult to stray. The bill to provide supplemental funds for the war in Iraq is coming up, and as unpopular as the war is, Republicans probably won't abandon the president's position. Many have questioned the war but have rigorously voted for it. Republicans and Democrats alike say that that's not likely to change now.
"Republicans believe it is in their interest to go along with the president," Binder says. Most are from safe Republican seats, and 66 percent of Republicans nationwide approve of Bush's handling of Iraq, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll. Republicans who dissent have been punished--witness Rep. Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland, who was defeated in this year's GOP primary by a more hawkish candidate.
But if violence continues to increase in Iraq and if American deaths climb, could congressional Republicans start to question the success of the troop surge and begin to lose confidence?
Coleman doubts that will happen. "We're always concerned about violence," he says. "We're not going to cut off funding for our troops. And I'm certainly not going to be supporting a precipitous withdrawal. That's not going to lessen violence; that would only increase violence. The fact is, Iraq is difficult and it's complicated," he says. "We need a path to get our soldiers out of there as quickly and as safely as possible: a light at the end of the tunnel. But you've got to do it in a way that doesn't cause more violence or undermine their security."
Coleman says he sees no daylight between his position and the administration's. But the White House is getting push-back on the edges. Smith--who, like Coleman, speaks critically of the war but votes with the president--is among a group of West Coast senators who want to put some domestic spending (in this case, assistance for salmon fishermen) into the war supplemental, over Bush's objections.
Brown-Waite enthusiastically supports the GI Bill expansion proposed by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., over a less expensive version backed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that has the administration's blessing. The Webb bill would give more benefits to veterans who have as little as 36 months of service; its critics worry that the change would hurt the military's re-enlistment efforts.
"We have [Speaker Nancy Pelosi] behind it," she says. "We have Harry Reid, the majority leader in the Senate, and with this many co-sponsors, I'd put my money on this bill."
There are limits, though, to the extent of any Republican revolt against Bush. Partisanship in Washington remains so strong that there is little room for maneuver. Several unstoppable factors are driving that partisanship--the blogosphere and cable news among them--but Bush chose early on to take a polarizing approach, says Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University. "He fully embraced this style of politics," and that decision has accelerated partisanship, Zelizer says.
Now, falling in the polls and having lost control of Congress, the GOP is doing a certain amount of wagon-circling. Or call it a purification process. "As the Republican Party shrinks, it becomes more cohesive," Binder says. Even if Bush wanted to back Frank's mortgage relief bill to help out endangered Republicans in Ohio, Florida, and elsewhere, he would be pilloried by doctrinaire conservatives who oppose anything that smacks of a bailout. He'd be outside the circled wagons. Fratto argues: "Some of the critics on our side of the aisle have to remember, we do have principles."
A Weight on His Party
White House veterans maintain that Bush still has plenty of clout. Jack Howard, a onetime legislative aide who now runs a lobbying firm, says that the president's influence will become more visible toward the end of the congressional session. "He still has the ability to put things on the national agenda," Howard says. "And the president really does want to see Republicans get re-elected."
But Bush is so unpopular nationally that he has become what Fred Greenstein, a presidential historian and professor emeritus at Princeton, calls a weight on his party, a heavier drag than any president since Lyndon Johnson in 1968. "He's good for fundraising. He's good for targeted audiences. But how often has John McCain said, 'I'm proud to be following in the footsteps of George Bush'?"
The president seems to be "swinging for the fences," Greenstein says, traveling abroad regularly and hoping, as presidents have before him, for a last-minute breakthrough in the Middle East. On April 28, press secretary Dana Perino said that when Bush last met with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, "both reaffirmed their commitment to continuing to work together to help define a Palestinian state by the end of this year."
Bush retains the considerable power that comes with the authority to issue executive orders and attach signing statements to any legislation that finds its way to his desk--and those weapons, Greenstein says, don't require him to try to work with Capitol Hill. Republicans in Congress, of course, may not see that power in such a positive light. But even as they start turning away from Bush, Greenstein says, they won't admit it, because the core loyalty is still so strong--and because the president can still raise so much money.
Bush was a beneficiary of the trend toward a "plebiscitary presidency," says Gene Healy, a senior editor at the Cato Institute and the author of a new book, The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Presidential Power. High, and often unrealistic, public expectations almost always drive a president to seek more and more executive power at the expense of Congress, Healy says, and the combination of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a compliant Republican majority on the Hill made it possible for Bush to grab power by the handful. Even after the Hurricane Katrina disaster unfolded, Congress gave him yet more power--but his popularity was crumpling over the way he handled his new authority, and the "plebiscitary" nature of the presidency has come back to haunt Bush as the inevitable public disappointment has mounted.
Ebell, of the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, compares Bush unfavorably with Bill Clinton, in at least one respect. The first thing Clinton would do, he says, is gather together all the concerned parties on a particular issue. "What do you want? What can we do?" Then, when an initiative had been thrashed out, they'd meet again. "OK, we got three things you want, two things that are OK, and one you'll hate. Now, this is what you need to do--we gotta parcel out the op-eds, the talk shows, etc., etc." The Bush administration never does this, Ebell says, "and then seems mystified when they don't get support."
Bush certainly looks lonely on global warming. His April 16 Rose Garden speech on climate change was attacked from all sides--and with all sides agreeing that the speech was sorely lacking in substance. "It really didn't say very much," Heritage's Lieberman says. Ebell adds, "It's hard to see what the purpose of the speech was--unless initially there was more to it."
Conservatives acted as though there was. A week before Bush's speech, James Connaughton, chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, and Keith Hennessey, director of the National Economic Council, began briefing conservative Republicans in Congress. Word went around that the White House was considering a variety of options, up to and including a cap-and-trade regime for carbon emissions and even mandatory targets. Alarm bells began to ring in conservative circles.
Lieberman was plenty worried about "a president with an edifice complex on his mind." Ebell says, "The idea that the president would give in has been around. We have been very closely watching, because Josh Bolten is in charge of the White House now"--and it was Bolten, Ebell asserts, who persuaded candidate Bush to back cap-and-trade back in 2000, a position the president repudiated once he landed in the White House.
Congressional Republicans didn't receive Connaughton and Hennessey's briefing well. The Democratic leadership would ignore whatever the president proposed, they argued, yet any move by Bush would serve to "raise the floor." Rep. Shimkus told the briefers, according to his spokesman, Steven Tomaszewski: "Why bother, because it's not an issue where there's going to be movement on [Democrats'] end toward your proposal."
In the days before the Rose Garden event, Ebell and others put together a letter of protest warning the president against making what they called "a terrible blunder." The 25 signers included Paul Weyrich, national chairman of Coalitions for America, an association of conservative activist organizations; and Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.
In the end, when Bush stepped out into the Rose Garden (abloom with red tulips), he announced that he was committing the United States to the goal of ending the growth in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2025. His speech contained none of the mandatory efforts to combat global warming that the conservatives had feared. They believe they blocked stronger proposals. "You can never tell in any winning effort what caused you to win," Ebell says.
So, did the president back off? Absolutely not, Connaughton responds. "Everybody always likes to predict what we're going to do." What he talked about on Capitol Hill, he says, was the prospect of a "regulatory train wreck" if courts should rule that the Clean Air Act covers carbon dioxide emissions. Cap-and-trade "wasn't in the cards," Fratto says. And Bush didn't fold under pressure. "Complete urban myth. Completely and utterly false. It's not true."
Still, the president got less than a rousing reception. The speech created difficulties for congressional Republicans who have steadfastly resisted proposals to address global warming, Lieberman says. "Time is short. Why change a seven-year policy? No speech would have been better than this speech."
But doing nothing was not an option, Fratto contends. "Republicans need to understand these things are moving, with or without us. Maintaining the status quo is not winning. But it takes a while to sit down with each member of Congress and walk them through this impressionist painting we're looking at." That message may be starting to get through on the Hill--especially because all of the presidential contenders have far stronger global-warming proposals than Bush has.
Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma has been the leading congressional skeptic on climate change. But he understands the argument of Bush's aides that the president's goal-setting effort could be an effective firebreak against more-drastic action in the next administration. "We need to do something like technology-sharing [with other countries] to accomplish some restriction on CO2," Inhofe says. "But certainly not a cap-and-trade. So if that [position is] moving in McCain's direction, then it's moving in McCain's direction."
On the matter of North Korea, there has been far less ambiguity. Conservatives are deeply suspicious of the Bush administration, fearing that it lacks the will to force North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program.
"There has been a consistent willingness to lower the bar with respect to North Korea," California's Royce says. "A continued pattern of letting them off the hook. But success can't be built on compromised principles." Nick Eberstadt, a Korea expert at the American Enterprise Institute, says, "The U.S. government has thrown the bar away. The administration is willing to take any deal it can get away with."
Conservatives were suspicious of the motives when the administration disclosed intelligence showing a North Korean-Syrian link. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., believes that the White House was using Congress. Eberstadt, who says the president's approach to North Korea was formerly marked by "a surfeit of attitude and a paucity of policy," believes that the administration has now decided to ditch the attitude, as well. Why? "I'm not a Kremlinologist."
The perceived White House shift leads to what Eberstadt calls an awkward political calculation: "Does one support a president of one's party, or does one point to the obvious nakedness of the emperor? That's a question of immediate political expedience."
Calio thinks that the hard-liners should calm down. A deal to eliminate North Korea's nuclear program is too important to toss away casually, even as difficult as the North Koreans have been. "You have to give something to get something," he says. "Just saying no hasn't been working." But that's not an argument that resonates with those who fondly recall the more single-minded and self-confident Bush White House approach of years gone by.
Conservative criticism and mistrust of the administration aren't new, of course. On June 3, 2002, The Weekly Standard ran an article by William Kristol and Robert Kagan under the headline "Going Wobbly?" The authors feared that Bush was having doubts about whether to invade Iraq. (They needn't have worried.) Two years ago, the immigration debate set off ferocious unhappiness within the Right, enough to sideline a bipartisan effort and temporarily threaten McCain's presidential quest.
What's different now is the approaching expiration of the president's term. "He's done. These guys have got to live for the election coming up," says Patrick Griffin, who was President Clinton's legislative director. "And getting re-elected? You're back, and you're born again. That is a powerful, powerful dynamic."
Bush's unpopularity has so drained his political capital among Republicans, Binder says, that they are no longer willing to go out on a limb for him. That doesn't mean that a big break is in the works. It means that the president is simply no longer very relevant to the rest of his party.
Fratto says he's surprised that anyone would think Republicans in Congress and in the White House have diverging interests. Coordination between the president's people and their allies on Capitol Hill, he says, has never been better. "We are all in the same foxhole. The ranks have been unusually tight."
This article appears in the May 17, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.