Bush's way: Texas-style teamwork

Bush is friendly with Texas Democrats, but consensus-building is harder in Washington.

In 1998, El Paso Mayor Carlos Ramirez did what many fellow Democrats consider to be unforgivable. He endorsed Gov. George W. Bush (a Republican!) over Democrat Garry Mauro, helping Mr. Bush to become the first GOP governor in history to win El Paso County.

His stand hasn't gone unpunished. Local Democrats tried to expel him from office (he won reelection anyway) and voters still receive letters decrying his turncoat act.

"Bush is genuine, he's sincere, and I believe he can heal the country where it comes to partisan politics," says Mr. Ramirez, who says he has "no regrets" about supporting Bush for governor, and now, president.

Certainly, Bush has made consensus-building a centerpiece of his campaign. His supporters highlight his record of working with Texas Democrats to enact modest reforms ranging from electricity deregulation to children's healthcare.

But duplicating this careful, cooperative approach in Washington - particularly during an ultra-partisan redistricting year - will be far more difficult a task, critics contend.

For one thing, many Texas Democrats are conservatives when viewed in the national context of their party. It's hard to imagine such avowed liberals as Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts agreeing with Bush about much.

For another, the structure of Washington politics encourages partisanship. The House, with strict rules about debates, amendments, and votes, is basically ruled by partisan force. The Senate can be more accommodating - though its looser rules can allow a few committed opponents to play havoc with a presidential agenda.

Finally, Washington is simply a more partisan place. Years of struggle to win the brass ring of national power have left the two parties that govern America suspicious of each other's motives and strategies and less inclined to reach out to those folks across the aisle.

Still, during his two terms of office, Bush has established a track record as an irresistible, if unlikely, ally for Democrats. His willingness to work with the other party may have been in part a result of his newness to politics, analysts explain.

"Bush is not a hard ideologue, and that could be explained by the fact that he hasn't been in politics very long," says Robert Stein, dean of social sciences at Rice University in Houston.

But Bush has other reasons to favor compromise over hard ideology. "His father was brutalized by the right of his own party and by Ross Perot, not by Democrats. That fashioned his attitude: 'I'll never treat anyone like that.' "

Indeed, Bush's relations with powerful Democrats have been at times warmer than those with his own party. Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, an often volatile power broker known for twisting arms, became so close to Bush that he endorsed him for reelection in 1998, over his own protg, Garry Mauro. House Speaker James "Pete" Laney also developed a solid relationship with Bush, giving the governor wide latitude in pushing for modest, centrist legislation that appealed to conservative Democratic voters.

Bush's experience governing a divided state government, where Democrats control the House and Republicans control the Senate, may give him an edge in Washington, Dr. Stein says. "Bush adapted to the constraints of his office. If he wins the presidency, and if Washington has a divided government, Bush is quite experienced with that."

But even with his bipartisan temperament, Bush could have difficulty duplicating his style in Washington, in large part because he would be entering the presidency during the most partisan year of the decade. The year 2001 is a redistricting year, a time when Republicans and Democrats mud wrestle over the very middle-of-the-road congressional districts that Bush would be turning to for centrist Democratic allies.

If past experience is any guide, the result will be political gridlock. After all, centrists can mend fences all they want in Washington, but back in their home states, partisans will be busy tearing them down, and writing many lawmakers out of a job.

"Bush is going to come to the conservative Democrats, saying 'Help me out on this deal, it's the right thing to do,' but back home in the legislature, that rural Democrat is under assault from Republicans," says Louis Bacarisse, a conservative lobbyist in Austin.

That said, some presidents have managed to push through major legislation during redistricting years, and even hard-boiled conservatives have been known to forge good working relationships with their ideological foes, as Ronald Reagan did with House Speaker Tip O'Neill.

In addition, Texas Democrats who have worked with Bush say he is more interested in policy than in partisan politics.

"He's not going to go into the districts and campaign against people he has to work with later," says state Rep. Rob Junnell, a conservative West Texas Democrat who often accompanies Bush on the campaign stump. "It's hard to go campaign against somebody in the fall, and then once you get to the session, say, 'Well, that's over with, we're big buddies, now let's get along.' "

Asked if the bitter partisan politics of a redistricting year would slow down Bush, Mr. Junnell turns on the sarcasm.

"Jiminy Christmas, if you'd been in charge of the wagon trains, we never would have made it to the West Coast," he chides. "Somebody's got to try. If the president of the United States doesn't have the bully pulpit to make changes, then I don't know who can."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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