POTUS Operandi

As President of the United States, George W. Bush is less visible and more partisan than he was as governor. What happened to the guy we knew?

September 2001By Comments

For most of the Texans featured in this month’s issue, the answer to the question “Where are they now?” is not widely known. Time and the spotlight have moved on. The president of the United States is a different case. Everyone knows exactly where George W. Bush is and what he is doing. And yet these facts don’t tell us what we really want to know. His governing style in Washington, D.C., is so different from what it was in Texas—and not, alas, for the better—that we’re still moved to ask, What happened to the person we knew as Governor Bush? Where is he now?

The question comes at an appropriate time, for the August congressional recess has become for the late-starting Bush presidency what the one-hundred-day mark was for most of his predecessors: a time for pundits to take stock of the new administration. The grades have been mixed: “A” for getting his trillion-dollar tax cut; “I” (incomplete) for the rest of his legislative program; “F” for the White House’s mishandling of moderate Vermont senator Jim Jeffords, which led to his defection from the Republican party and cost the GOP control of the Senate. The best news for Bush is that his personal favorability rating, after a long slump, has risen to 63 percent in the Washington Post-ABC poll.

My own scorecard differs from those of the national media. From a distance, the day-to-day swings of legislative fortune mean little. Politics and policy are only part of the equation; they must be accompanied by personality and message. Governor Bush understood this. But President Bush doesn’t bear much resemblance to Governor Bush. No one in Texas politics (well, there’s Molly Ivins) would have dreamed of suggesting that Governor Bush was dumb, or disinterested, or not in charge—but nationally he has not established himself as a visible leader. The president’s image continues to be defined by late-night television while he remains shielded in the background. No one in Texas politics would have questioned his commitment to bipartisanship, as he forged not only alliances but also real friendships with the Democratic legislative leaders, Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock and Speaker Pete Laney—but that message has been muted. The president has found himself at odds not just with Democrats, which is to be expected, but also with Republican moderates like Jeffords and John McCain.

Three possible explanations come to mind for the dissonance between Governor Bush and President Bush. One is that the governor was different from what Texans thought he was; another is that Washington is different from Austin; and the third is that the White House is different from the governor’s office. The revisionist view of the Bush governorship has the least validity. He set the agenda and dominated the Legislature for six years. He went after the biggest issues: education reform and tax reform. He had a great staff and knew how to deploy them. His appointments (aside from the Reyn Archer controversy at the Health Department) were top-notch, especially for education commissioner and the Supreme Court. He took on the vitriolic right-wing faction on the State Board of Education. His administration was scandal-free. You could fault him for what he did not do—the environment, health care, higher education, and capital punishment reform were not on his radar screen—but he operated in the tradition of Texas governors, which is to pick out a few issues, rather than try to fix everything, as only John Connally, of all his predecessors, attempted to do. I would rate Bush as second to Connally among twentieth-century Texas governors, and I’m not even sure who would be third. Ann Richards, perhaps, but for symbolic achievements rather than substantive ones.

The second reason, that Washington is different from Austin, explains Bush’s move to the right. Every aspect of politics is more intense and more institutionalized in Washington: media coverage, partisanship, ideological pressure from your own side, the attention that polls receive. Bush had to make an accommodation with the Republican right that he never had to do in Texas, or else he would have risked alienating the base of the party, as his father did before him.

The organization of the office is the most critical difference between the governor and the president. In Austin, the governor’s political director, Karl Rove, was on the outside. He headed his own consulting firm. His remoteness from daily action meant that he seldom got involved in policy issues. If he snubbed legislators or twisted arms, he was acting on his own. In Washington, Rove is a senior advisor on the White House staff. He is deeply involved in policy issues. (He was concerned about federal funding for stem cell research because of its potential impact on the Catholic vote.) If, as published reports have suggested, he played mean with Jeffords, he did so as the agent of the president; therefore the affront was much more serious. Another staffing difference is that Joe Allbaugh, Bush’s chief of staff and enforcer in the governor’s office, is no longer on the inside; he is the director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration. Allbaugh had the size and the presence that the enforcer’s job demanded, and he wasn’t shy about challenging Rove or anybody else. The absence of Allbaugh or some other enforcer type, such as Bush’s former Texas Secretary of State Elton Bomer, leaves the staff out of balance. I can’t help but wonder: If Allbaugh had been on the inside keeping an eye on Rove, wouldn’t Jeffords still be a Republican?

One other significant factor distinguishes Governor Bush’s office from President Bush’s office. The governor organized his staff so that there would be no gatekeeper, no strong individual who would dominate all decision making and isolate the chief executive, as he had seen happen in his father’s White House when John Sununu was chief of staff. Now the new President Bush finds himself with a Sununu of his own, only this one cannot be fired. He is, of course, Vice President Dick Cheney. As expected, Cheney is enormously skilled in the ways of Washington, which is a great help to the new administration. As not expected, Cheney turns out to be an ideologue, particularly in the areas of environment and defense, which is not such a help to the new administration. Moreover, I wonder whether Cheney’s experience and wisdom are so overwhelming that it is difficult for the president to challenge him.

The result is that the White House too often has taken positions that are on what might be called the “kook scale”—something that is in conflict with things that Americans take for granted. Here are four examples:

·Revoking a tougher standard for arsenic in drinking water. I have no idea whether the rejection of the standard proposed by Bill Clinton is based on sound science, which is what the Bush administration wants to find out. But I have a very good idea what most Americans think about arsenic in their drinking water. They don’t want to have to worry about what a new administration with a questionable record on the environment considers to be sound science.

·Ending the role of the American Bar Association in evaluating judicial appointments. It is always unsettling when you change a policy that Republican and Democratic presidents have followed for half a century with no apparent harm being done to either side. Conservatives have long opposed the ABA’s role, but by appeasing them, Bush needlessly raised fears that he plans to appoint extremist judges who might not have withstood ABA scrutiny.

·Questioning the value of conservation in energy policy. Does anybody other than Dick Cheney believe this?

·Voicing doubt that global warming is a problem. It is true that climatology is a relatively new science, and we really don’t know whether climate cycles should be measured in years, centuries, or millennia. Nevertheless, the vast weight of scientific opinion holds that the problem is real—and so does the vast weight of public opinion.

The problem for the president is that all of this is occurring at a time when American politics appears to be zooming toward the center. No one is more aware of this, or more concerned, than Republican strategists. A front-page story in the New York Times in early August noted the emergence of a serious gender gap for the GOP, even in suburbia, which traditionally has been a Republican stronghold. The essence of the shift is that politics today is cultural rather than economic, and the cultural issues—abortion, health care, education, guns, the environment—cut the Democrats’ way at the moment. The concern of the strategists is that the GOP is being locked into the old-boy rural culture of the South and the interior West; that the northern suburbs are drifting away from them; that what happened in California, which in the nineties switched from strongly Republican to strongly Democratic, will, as every popular trend that starts in California does, eventually spread eastward, and that when it reaches Illinois and Ohio, the Republicans are dead.

Even Texas is not immune. Rove understands this, and so do GOP legislators; it is conventional wisdom now that the party has about ten years to woo Hispanics to their cause, and maybe less to respond to the concerns of women, or lose the state for decades. I know that Governor Bush understood this too. Where is he now?

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