Introduction: The Political Government|
By Michael Barone
© National Journal Group Inc.
The Founding Fathers did not intend to make American government easy. They set up three branches of government, with powers intertwined with each other. The president would be commander-in-chief, but Congress would declare war; the state's electors would choose the president, but the House could do so when no one got an electoral majority; the president would administer, but the Congress would appropriate, and only the House could initiate taxation; the president would conduct foreign policy, but the Senate must approve treaties. All voters would choose members of the House, but state legislatures, originally, chose members of the Senate, and the method of electing the president was left to the state legislatures. Where exactly the Supreme Court would fit into all this the Founders left ambiguous; and it remains ambiguous still, even as the Supreme Court effectively determined who would become president in January 2001.
The political branches of the United States government are now, technically, in the hands of the Republican Party, but by narrow margins. George W. Bush was chosen by an Electoral College majority of 271-266 (which would have been 278-259 if the states had the number of electoral votes as they will in 2004). The House of Representatives is Republican by a 229-206 margin. The Senate is Republican by a 51-49 margin. (In each house there is a nominal Independent, both from Vermont, who votes with the Democrats to organize the chamber). But it is a mistake to say that the Republican Party is in control of a government which in any circumstances is difficult to control and when the Republican control is so tenuous.
This is not control. But it is incumbency, and incumbents ordinarily have one great power in government and politics, the power to set the agenda. That power can move from one branch of the government to another, as it did from Bill Clinton's White House to Newt Gingrich's House of Representatives in November 1994; and it can move back again. It can move outside government altogether: in the spring of 1992 Ross Perot and his cries for cutting deficits and reforming government eclipsed the incumbent president and the man who would be elected his successor. In early 2001, despite the narrowness of his margin and the bitterness of the Florida contest, the power to set the agenda for government was solidly in the hands of George W. Bush. Senate Democrats gained the power to obstruct some of that agenda after Jim Jeffords left the Republican party and gave Democrats a 51-49 edge. But their attempts to set out an agenda of their own foundered. Bush's campaigning and shrewd use of issues enabled Republicans to pick up two seats in the November 2002 election and they now have a 51-49 margin. In early 2003 Bush was once again in position, more firmly than in early 2001, to set the agenda. So it is with the presidency that we begin.
"An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the presidency has been the lengthened shadows of the 43 men who have held the office. This presidency is the lengthened shadow of George W. Bush, a man Washington had difficulty understanding during the 2000 campaign but who, when observed over his not overlong political career, is a comprehensible and coherent figure.
Bush's 1993-94 campaign for governor was methodical, dogged, clearly focused on issues, and underestimated by the opposition -- a campaign that was very much the model for his 1999-2000 campaign for president.
Once in office, Bush acted like a president with a mandate to govern. He pushed his tax cut through in May, just before Democrats became the majority party in the Senate thanks to the defection of Jim Jeffords. He was unphased when 42 of the 50 Senate Democrats voted against the confirmation of their former colleague John Ashcroft as attorney general. He worked with Edward Kennedy and George Miller to pass a bipartisan education bill. He pressed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to transform the military establishment, while he backed OMB Director Mitch Daniels who gave Rumsfeld far less money than he wanted. Up through early September, his job ratings hovered just above 50%. The nation was still as closely divided as it was on Election Day 2000.
Through all this Bush operated the way he had in Texas and in his campaigns -- and very differently from Bill Clinton. The difference between Bush and Clinton is the difference between the quantum and wave theories of light. Clinton was all wave theory, forever oscillating, forever in motion, never focusing on one fixed place, always adapting skillfully to circumstances and settings, never really changing the way others see things. Bush is all quantum theory: no motion for what seems an agonizingly long time, then a sudden pulse of energy that puts everything in a new light. Bush the candidate did no campaigning until May 1999, then emerged within weeks with a campaign organization and set of issues he stuck to for the duration. Bush the nominee stayed mostly out of sight during the 36 days of the Florida controversy, then when it was settled emerged within days with a staffed government and issue agenda. This is a disciplined, methodical man who gets up early in the morning, keeps to his schedule, makes judgments about personnel and decisions about issues quickly and crisply, and sticks mostly to his long-set-out plans. Deadlines are set and met, speech texts reviewed and speeches given, meetings proceed as scheduled, and public appearances go off as planned. George W. Bush is the first business school graduate to become president. His operating style resembles most closely, among former presidents, that of Dwight Eisenhower, who had been more of a manager than a warrior as a general. Like Eisenhower, he has appointed people of great accomplishment outside politics, including some with views which seem different from his own; like Eisenhower, he seems confident he can manage them to produce the results he wants.
Also like Eisenhower, he is often underestimated -- misunderestimated, as he puts it. His lack of fluency, especially in comparison to Clinton, is striking and, to the press, suggests that he is dumb: the chattering class likes people who are good at chattering. But his crisp four and five-point programs are based on more than polls and focus groups. His convention speech showed a sense of history; it spun out a narrative in which Republican presidents have rescued the nation from the consequences of weakness abroad and have reformed its institutions at home, a narrative which places him in a line with Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and his father. His inaugural speech was suffused with a sense of the importance of religion in helping the nation set its course. It is said by his critics that Bush has no understanding of the complexity of issues, that he cannot match Clinton in the exegesis of detail. But he has the kind of intelligence that can get through the fog and confusion of a complicated world and identify the central issue and prepare a response to it.
Those are qualities that became apparent on September 11. Immediately he recognized that the nation had been attacked, and that it was in danger from terrorists and -- of critical importance in the months ahead -- states that sponsor terrorism. This was a problem he had not prepared for, and yet he was prepared to deal with it. Three days later he spoke movingly at the National Cathedral and declared that the terrorists would be dealt with "at a time and place of our choosing." That afternoon he went to Ground Zero in New York. There were no plans for him to speak to the rescue workers there. But they wanted to hear him. A bullhorn was found and Bush stood next to a retired firefighter on the rubble. Someone in the crowd yelled that he couldn't hear him. Bush said, "I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon." The rescue workers started chanting, "U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" It was a climactic moment, entirely unrehearsed. Then on September 20 he spoke to Congress. "Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated." He announced that, "From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime." The issue had been framed: the United States would fight a worldwide war against terrorism and regimes that harbor terrorists. This was not an inevitable response to the attacks, yet it was George W. Bush's, and became America's.
Over the course of the next year, Bush made in quantum leaps the greatest reorientation of American foreign policy since Harry Truman set America's course in the Cold War in 1947-48. In October military action in Afghanistan began; in November the Taliban government fell. In his State of the Union speech in January 2002 he identified Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world." He went on, "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons." Military action against Iraq, seemingly unthinkable before, now seemed likely. At West Point on June 1, 2002, Bush said that deterrence and containment no longer were sufficient against the asymmetric threats of terrorists. "Deterrence -- the promise of massive retaliation against nations -- means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend. Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies. . . . We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act." On June 24 in the Rose Garden he made a sharp break with previous policy on the Palestinians. The United States would support an independent Palestinian state, but only when Palestinians created "entirely new political and economic institutions, based on democracy, market economics and action against terrorism" and after "its leaders engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure." On September 12 he spoke to the United Nations, coolly listing the Security Council resolutions that Iraq had violated or ignored and challenged the U.N. to take action. This led to the adoption of a resolution November 8 demanding immediate compliance by Iraq and authorizing member states to take action ("serious consequences") if it did not. This led proximately to American military action in Iraq in March 2003.
When Bush became president, many thought he would be overshadowed by the far more experienced and knowledgeable foreign and defense policy advisers he appointed -- Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice. He has certainly drawn on their expertise and experience, but all accounts -- notably, Bob Woodward's Bush at War -- indicate that in this administration, as in most others, it is the president who is the real commander-in-chief. During many of the months after September 11 Bush seemed to be taking what was widely regarded as Rumsfeld's advice -- in prosecuting the war in Afghanistan, in identifying Iraq as part of the axis of evil, in ordering military action against Iraq with a force about half the size of that in the 1991 Gulf War. But at other times, he seemed to be taking what was widely regarded as Powell's advice -- in encouraging Middle East peace negotiations in spring 2002, in going to the United Nations and seeking support for military action in Iraq in September 2002. The picture one gets is of a president who runs an unusually organized White House, after the manner of Eisenhower and Gerald Ford, who identifies issues and sets timetables to address them, who is respectful of his appointees but who leaves no doubt about who is in charge. Newspaper stories based on leaks by disgruntled appointees do appear from time to time, but much less frequently than in many other administrations.
Bush has accepted defeats on issues which he did not consider central, and signed legislation inconsistent with previous statements he had made -- the campaign finance regulation bill which passed the Senate in April, the farm bill passed in May 2002. After the collapse of WorldCom he quickly accepted the bipartisan corporate accountability bill sponsored by Senator Paul Sarbanes though it included many provisions Republicans had opposed in the House. In June he called for creation of a Department of Homeland Security, something previously supported mostly by Democrats. After Bush's speech at the United Nations, Bush made it clear he wanted Congress to vote on a resolution authorizing military action in Iraq. At first Daschle said there would have to be long deliberations, probably until after the November election. When it became clear that that was not acceptable to many, he then said that the Senate would deliberate and vote very quickly, presumably so that Democrats could raise other issues that might help them in the election.
It was not clear in 2001 that Bush would campaign hard for Republicans to retake the Senate in 2002. In Texas he had not opposed Democratic legislators who voted for his program. But at some point, perhaps when the Democrats got a majority in the Senate in June 2001 and certainly by early 2002, he seems to have decided that Daschle and the Senate Democrats were using their majority to obstruct too many of his programs, and he decided to fight. White House political adviser Karl Rove and Bush himself were involved in selecting candidates in key races. Clinton had set the record for presidential appearances at political fundraisers and campaign events; Bush far exceeded that record. In that campaigning he consistently emphasized one issue that Democrats evidently thought would have little impact: homeland security. Senate Democrats had provisions in their homeland security bill for civil service protections for employees that Bush argued would tie his hands in the fight against terrorism. Joe Lieberman, chief sponsor of the bill, who had called for a separate homeland security department long before Bush, seemed incredulous that Bush would persist in opposing these provisions. But he did. In September the homeland security bill was held up by a series of discursive speeches by Robert Byrd. In October Republicans prevented Senate Democrats from passing their version of the bill. On the stump Bush argued that Democrats were blocking an effective homeland security bill; ads attacking Democratic senators took up the theme. The issue did not register much in polls. But when combined with the Democrats' divided stand on military action against Iraq, it made the party and its candidates seem less than fully committed to the war on terrorism. Senate Democrats stayed true to their supporters and contributors, the public employee unions. But Bush made sure they paid a political price.
In early 2003, even amid preparations for military action in Iraq, Bush announced an ambitious legislative agenda--$726 billion in tax cuts, including an end to the double taxation of dividends and an acceleration of the 2001 tax cuts, and major changes in Medicare. It was by no means clear at first that these would pass in the Republican-controlled House; Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas indicated that there would have to be modifications. But Bush had accepted modifications of his 2001 tax and education proposals. Certainly the Republican majority in the Senate does not guarantee that Bush will get his entire legislative program through that chamber. Democrats' filibuster of the judicial nomination of Miguel Estrada -- the first filibuster of a lower court nomination ever -- showed that Senate Democrats were in a mood to obstruct much of his program any way they could. The defection of three Republicans on the budget resolution that halved the tax cut showed that the Republican majority in the Senate was by no means as amenable to discipline as Republicans in the House. So did the failure of Republicans to get the full Bush tax cut into the Senate version of the budget resolution. But an image of obstruction will not necessarily help the Democrats in 2004.
The course of the 2004 presidential campaign cannot be known at this writing. While the outcome of military action in Iraq was favorable, the course of postwar Iraq is not known. Further progress or setbacks in the war on terrorism are possible. It is not clear whether voters in November 2004 will still believe that we are a nation in peril. It is utterly uncertain who will be the Democratic nominee and what will be the posture of the Democratic party. In the months before military action in Iraq, Democratic activists and primary voters seemed to be deeply split. Many were strong and vocal opponents of military action in Iraq; many were quieter and less articulate supporters. If that split continues, the contest for the Democratic nomination will be a battle between hawks and doves, a battle that will make it harder, whichever side wins, for the nominee in the general election: a nominee identified as a dove will have trouble appealing to the center of the electorate; a nominee identified as a hawk will be faced with defections to the Green party or some other leftish alternative and with low morale and possibly low turnout among party doves. In contrast to all these unknowns, it seems pretty clear how George W. Bush will conduct his campaign. He will raise enormous amounts of money and will be able, as Clinton was in 1996, to deliver a political message in spring and summer 2004 when the opposition is likely to be out of money and out of the spotlight. He will be able to campaign as a leader in time of war -- how strong and effective a leader the voters, of course, will decide. He will campaign as a president who has sought major changes in taxes, Medicare, Social Security, education and other basic programs -- changes that typically provide a broader array of choices to individuals and less centralized command and control. The large numbers of Americans still arrayed on both sides of the culture wars make it unlikely that he can win a majority as high as the 61% of Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, Lyndon Johnson in 1964 or Richard Nixon in 1972 or the 59% of Ronald Reagan in 1984. The uncertainty of the course of the war and the economy mean that it is possible that he will win less than the 48% he won in 2000 and will become, as his father was, a one-term president. But for the moment he remains a president with strength far greater than his electoral vote majority and his party's majorities in Congress would suggest.
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