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?

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

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