Balancing statesmanship and partisanship
President Bush struggles to unify US over terrorism, while promoting GOP interests.
WASHINGTON — For George W. Bush, the wartime presidency is turning into a tricky balancing act that may very well last until the next presidential election.
As commander in chief, he must maintain a unified Congress that will back him in this unique war of undetermined length. But as standard bearer for the Grand Old Party, he has a Republican base to satisfy, and a conservative agenda he cares about.
The two are not easily reconcilable, and historians note that past wartime presidents have had to compromise partisan interests for the sake of national unity.
Indeed, this week President Bush did not make personal campaign appearances on behalf of two Republican gubernatorial candidates - two candidates who lost. It was a decision that rankled some party faithful, but which others saw as a means to stay above the fray and maintain his role as national unifier.
"This is going to be a constant tension - Bush as wartime president and Bush as leader of the Republican Party. He's going to have to juggle constantly between these two roles," says Marshall Wittmann, an analyst at the Hudson Institute in Washington.
For much of the past two months, it's mostly the bipartisan wartime president who Americans have seen: Bush getting near unanimous congressional approval to use whatever means necessary to carry out the war on terrorism, and then working with lawmakers on a $40 billion emergency spending package for defense and rebuilding after the attacks. He proceeded cautiously on the military front, distancing himself from hawks in his own party who want to accelerate and broaden the war.
On the campaign front, the president is letting others wave the GOP flag. He pulled out of a fundraiser for Republican governors in October, sending the vice president in his place. And it is his father who will head to Missouri later this month to help a Republican Senate candidate raise funds. All that the current president did for this week's elections was lend his name to mailings and record get-out-the-vote phone messages.
"Bush essentially decided to sacrifice state and local Republican candidates to remain above the fray," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, a Republican-leaning state where campaigning from Bush might have made a difference for GOP gubernatorial candidate Mark Earley.
Still, none of this is to say the president is abandoning his party or his conservative program. In recent days, in fact, the tension between the White House and Democratic lawmakers has been taut - to the point of snapping.
Bush, a tax cutter to the end, favors the House version of an economic stimulus package - which speeds up his 10-year tax cut plan and awards corporations significant breaks. About 75 percent of the House bill is devoted to individual and business tax reductions.
Senate Democrats are calibrating their package in the opposite direction, allowing only about 25 percent for tax cuts, while pumping up spending on expanded unemployment benefits and health insurance for the jobless. They also want $20 billion for infrastructure and security in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
But in a tense White House meeting with lawmakers Tuesday, the president threatened to veto any extra emergency spending on antiterrorism measures. The $40 billion already passed is enough, he said, and, if more is needed, it can be worked out in next year's budget process.
His threat infuriated Democrats and some key Republicans, who point out that the $40 billion was agreed to before the anthrax scare. "If you want to veto it, you go right ahead," Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, reportedly told the president. Still, the GOP leadership on the Hill is backing the White House.
The other highly visible fight has been over the airline security bill. Even though the Senate passed a measure 100 to 0 calling for federalizing airport security, Bush took the lead in backing a GOP plan in the House that would leave it in the hands of the private sector, with federal oversight. Now the legislation is tied
up in conference committee.
Stimulus packages and baggage scanners are just two examples of a president sticking with elements of his conservative agenda. In a speech before the National Association of Manufacturers last week, he also pushed his energy plan and trade promotion authority, arguing they were necessary for economic revival and, in the case of energy, important to national security.
Analysts say it's smart to wrap these controversial issues in the context of the only two themes that matter today: the war and the economy. At the same time, with approval ratings hovering around 90 percent, he has some political capital to spend.
But this doesn't guarantee that his agenda will prevail. "It's very difficult to push simultaneously for a unified war effort, and for controversial bills and programs that are not bipartisan," says historian Allan Lichtman at American University here.
Even Franklin Roosevelt experienced colossal struggles. Once World War II started, he had to abandon the New Deal, including the multibillion-dollar Works Progress Administration - a huge jobs program. During the war years, Mr. Lichtman points out, Congress was dominated by a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats, and the president could not afford to cross them.