Jewish World Review Feb. 26, 2002 / 14 Adar, 5762
Winning by not fighting
IN THE CAPITOL OFFICE of House Republican whip Tom DeLay, a special room is set aside for the White House legislative team. It isn't used much. The president's lobbyists are not a large presence in Congress these days. Bush is concentrating on the war against terrorism and the "axis of evil" and thus avoids legislative fights. On the day the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill passed the House, chief lobbyist Nick Calio chatted with GOP staffers and asked what he could do to help. They answered in unison: Get the president to veto Shays-Meehan. That, Calio responded, isn't going to happen.
Bush's aloof attitude has upset Republicans on Capitol Hill. On campaign finance reform, he declined to press (or have his lobbyists press) for even his own version of the legislation. Rather, comments by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer gave encouragement to Democratic reformers and to Sen. John McCain, their chief GOP ally. McCain, of course, is Bush's Republican nemesis. And the White House has also failed to work aggressively for confirmation of Charles Pickering to the U.S. Court of Appeals until the nomination got into deep trouble. Even now, there have been no Oval Office calls to senators.
There's a rationale and a strategy behind Bush's passive approach. His main role is to be a nonpartisan war president. This is Bush's inclination anyway, and it helps in keeping Democrats on board the war effort. It also turns out to be good politics. His job performance rating has cruised at historically unprecedented heights for nearly six months and some of his popularity has rubbed off on the GOP and congressional Republicans. Meanwhile, as Bush stays above the fray, nearly everyone else in the Republican party, including members of the administration, is assigned the chores of partisan politics. For example, Karl Rove, the White House senior adviser, recently counseled Republicans to exploit the president's success in the war on terrorism in their campaigns this fall against Democrats. He didn't recommend giving the bipartisan war coalition in Congress any credit.
Bush would never overtly make his performance as wartime president a partisan matter. In his State of the Union address a month ago, he stressed working with Democrats on an entire agenda of issues in 2002: energy, trade promotion authority, more tax cuts, reauthorization of welfare reform, pension reform, a patients' bill of rights, prescription drug benefits, Social Security overhaul. The question is whether Bush intends to exert himself on behalf of this agenda. Chances are, he won't, either in trying to forge compromises with Democratic leaders or seeking to override their opposition to enact Republican bills.
Only one glitch has marred the president's strategy. For 10 days in mid-February, a TV ad featuring Bush was aired in five states. The president's comments were from earlier speeches--it was file film--but the ads attacked vulnerable Democratic senators. In the case of Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, the announcer says he voted against a compromise plan to get his state "back to work." Then Bush says, "There's something more important than politics and that's to do our jobs." The announcer closes by saying, "We agree."
White House officials were aware Bush would appear in the ad, and they didn't expect to suffer any heartburn as a result. But they did. Not only did Democrats complain Bush was breaking his pledge of bipartisanship, but so did media commentators. In fact, Bush hadn't promised to be bipartisan on an economic stimulus package. But at the least, it was unseemly for a war president to be the star of attack ads aimed at politicians who support him on the war. Rove was uptight about the whole thing. When JWR's Mort Kondracke inquired about Bush's role in the ad, Rove sent back word he wouldn't talk about it.
Don't expect Bush to appear in more attack ads, if only because it could diminish his war presidency and his popularity. Positive ads, maybe. Bush doesn't want to overplay his hand as Woodrow Wilson did in 1918. Wilson had appealed for the suspension of partisan politics after the United States entered World War I. But days before the November election, he issued an amazing "open letter" saying the nation needed "undivided leadership...and that a Republican Congress would divide that leadership." It backfired. "Even with an allied victory only days away," notes James Barnes in the National Journal, "the GOP picked up 19 seats in the House and six in the Senate and seized control of both chambers."
The Bush scheme is the opposite: pursue the war successfully, be mostly nonpartisan, stay out of congressional fights, and gain seats. And who knows? Bush may achieve what Wilson couldn't--one-party leadership in Washington,
Fred Barnes is Executive editor at the Weekly Standard. Comment by clicking here.
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