In final quarter, Bush is no Reagan
The current president signals he's disinclined to compromise with Congress, as Reagan did.
When the Republican Party lost control of both houses of Congress last November, George W. Bush knew he had his work cut out for him going into the final quarter of his presidency. If he was to get anything done that involved Congress's approval, he would have to work with the Democrats.Skip to next paragraph
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If he wanted a role model, he needed look no further than President Ronald Reagan, who also faced a new Democratic majority in his final quarter, after the Democrats retook the Senate in 1986.
Mr. Reagan, like Mr. Bush, had gone through his share of second-term blues, including scandal (Iran-contra) and a hit to his job approval. But Reagan rebounded in his final year-plus in office – in part by cutting deals with Congress (and the Soviet Union) – and ended his presidency with job-approval ratings above 60 percent. Perhaps not coincidentally, he pulled off a rare feat: He was succeeded by his vice president, George H.W. Bush.
The current President Bush has shown no such inclination to compromise with the Democrats lately, instead using or threatening to use the veto pen early and often, particularly on spending bills. On Tuesday, Bush signed one, Defense appropriations, and vetoed one, the Labor-Health-Education appropriations bill, on the grounds that it was $10 billion over budget and funded 2,000 special projects.
Bush went after Congress in a speech Tuesday in Indiana: "Their majority was elected on a pledge of fiscal responsibility, but so far it is acting like a teenager with a new credit card."
Bush went 5-1/2 years before his first veto, but his apparent goal now is to reestablish his bona fides as a fiscal conservative, after spending big earlier in office.
Getting tough on spending "is something that base conservatives have been requesting," says GOP pollster Whit Ayres. "A fundamental problem, however, is not Republicans but independents who abandoned us en masse in 2006."
Whether the intensified partisan environment hurts Republicans' electoral prospects in 2008 remains to be seen. Congressional Democrats appear just as ready for conflict as Bush, and indeed, since they took over the leadership, public approval of Congress has plummeted. But typically the public perceives that it's the president who sets the tone in Washington.
"Deservedly or not, Bush is getting most of the blame," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas, Austin.
Given the unpopularity of the Iraq war, which dwarfs other issues, Bush may not be able to do much to effect a dramatic change of atmosphere for his party's eventual nominee – short of announcing steps toward ending the war. The better analogy for Bush's final period in the Oval Office may end up being Presidents Harry Truman or Lyndon Johnson, who left office presiding over unpopular wars.
Still, there are historical parallels between Bush and Reagan. In Bush's first presidential campaign, he came across more as a son of Reagan than his own father's son. A Western governor like Reagan, Bush ran as a Washington outsider on a platform of tax cuts, strong defense, and conservative values, and sought to complete the "Reagan revolution" that would build GOP political dominance for generations to come. Reagan fought communism; after 9/11, Bush fought terrorism.