Can the Bush Administration walk and chew gum at the same time? The current word on the street is that the administration is hell bent on signing bills to take issues off the table in preparation for the fall elections. This organizing principle appears to be behind a slowly coalescing lurch to the left. The President is portrayed by conservatives (led by the gang at National Review) as tolerating insults (on appointments), adopting meaningless prescriptions on the environment (emissions credits), giving up on economic stimulus and the cruelest of all cuts, the White House leak machine has undercut the efforts of Republicans in the Senate to modify or block campaign finance reform. To paraphrase Rick Lowry, the President appears to be on track to abrogate not only his principles for campaign finance reform but shirk his constitutional duty to veto unconstitutional legislation.
I don’t have any secret sources, all I can do is review the state of play and draw my own conclusions. The Bush critics have a strong case to make based on the circumstantial evidence. We’ve been told over and over about how close mouthed the White House is, so it appears that all the winks, nods and outright leaks directed to the conservative pundits would be deliberate. If that’s true then we are in for a long hard November. The tenor among conservatives, the activist kind who post lengthy essays on the internet, is that Bush stands at the brink of a chasm that could swallow his credibility. Unlike the liberals, conservatives always reference first principles in any debate. They value candor and commitment. They distrust compromise because it often leads to abrogation of those principles. In their view, Bush’s most valuable commodity is his willingness to lead, to take the right position and to make decisions without regard to the polls or the attacks of the press.
Before launching into an orgy of Bush bashing, one thing is worth considering. Despite all the link, hints, winks and nudges; nobody really knows what is in the mind of the President. His style of management is more MBA than any recent President. Like all good leaders he is well aware of his own limitations and of the need for focus on solving problems. He is not like his predecessor, who had a focus grouped poll driven "solution" to every problem imaginable. He has a sense of history, probably more so than any other President since Nixon and I believe he feels the obligation of the office and the scope of his decisions. Why does he fight the GAO on the energy task force? Because Presidents are entitled to the free and frank exchange of views on policy. There is no allegation of criminality which would negate the presumption of executive privilege. This is a political attack by Democrats who want to beat the administration over the head with the dreaded "appearance of impropriety". As any reasonable person should conclude, the Energy plans are not secret proposals. Each and every item of this proposal must be either passed by Congress or implemented in the public rule making process. Legislative and Judicial review are checks and balances on executive corruption as much as foolish policy. It’s understandable that the Democrats and their media allies want "open government", the same crew that found "the protective function privilege" claimed by Janet Reno so persuasive. It’s politics not principle.
What’s disappointing is the crowd on the right that calls for Bush to cave in on this principle. They are led by conservative media figures such as Fred Barnes. Their argument for giving in is the very epitome of the pragmatism they so often criticize in politicians. Rather than defend the President’s principle they would just as soon that issue went away. So when the President stands on principle his own allies attack him for not being a wily politician. When the White House hints at compromise, he is pilloried for being practical. Nobody said it would be easy to be President but you’d think that his friends would at least make a pretense at understanding.
I think most professional observers of politics are looking for a political strategy where there is none. The strategy in place today is designed to govern the nation, to provide leadership in a time of war and stability at home. Nobody in the White House is so foolish as to think that Bush’s popularity represents anything more than a vote of confidence in his leadership as the Commander in Chief. The President as unifying war leader draws on a deep reservoir of patriotism that has been dormant since the Reagan Administration. In a sense it is the means that the citizens use to empower Bush to plan and prosecute the war on terror. His marks in other areas are positive but not nearly as overwhelming. To say it a different way, his political capital is foreign currency not US dollars. He can spend it on national and homeland defense but it does not give him an advantage on domestic policy.
The Republicans in Congress have made the same flawed analysis of the situation. Rather than depend on their own resources they sulk in the corners of the Capitol Building wondering why the President doesn’t come to their rescue. It’s amusing. The most powerful legislators in the world have assumed the role of damsel in in distress. What they need to do is use the power that they have to make common cause with the administration. I thought I saw a spark of defiance the other day in the normally courtly and ineffective Trent Lott. He appeared to be quite upset at the treatment of his friend Charles Pickering. This is the sort of personal battle that can change the dynamics of Congressional warfare. But it appears that spark flickered and died. I realize the rules of the Senate give the majority leader a good deal of power. But the Senate is designed to function on consensus, nothing so throws it off track like the resistance of a determined minority. If the Republican leaders in the Senate had courage, they would treat the Democrats as opponents and take every opportunity to put sand in the legislative gears. The Democrats have used this approach for years, and prospered by it. When the Republican Senate caucus chooses comity over combat, they get neither. They must clear their minds and be prepared for the future. If the Republicans take back the Senate in the fall, then good things will happen for them. If they do not, they will be doomed to the margins once again. They have nothing to lose and much to gain by focusing on principle.
Just a few thoughts in closing.
Nobody knows how CFR will turn out. It must still be passed by the Senate, it must be passed in such a manner that it does not require a conference committee, the final bill must be passed by one or the other body (depending on which version is final) and then it must go to the President. While it appears this train is unstoppable there are more than a few obstacles that must be cleared and in the end it must have a Presidential signature.
The wild card that nobody ever talks about is terrorism. We are a target now and as the war progresses the enemy has an even greater incentive to attack us both overseas and in the United States. All the federal agencies believe that a further attack is very likely. Bush continues to focus on the war, while the legislators argue about how many soft dollars can dance on the head of a pin. If we are attacked, Congress will suffer for their lack of attention to the war. Nothing so concentrates the minds of the voters as a graphic illustration that their government is busy fiddling while the nation burns. And Bush is not on the ballot in the fall, Congress is.