In final quarter, Bush is no Reagan

The current president signals he's disinclined to compromise with Congress, as Reagan did.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Now approaching his final year in office, with job-approval ratings in the low 30s, Bush appears to have concluded that the best he can do is shore up the support he does have by emphasizing fiscal conservatism. Last week, when Bush vetoed a popular $23 billion water-projects bill, he knew there were plenty of votes from both parties to override him, but he vetoed it anyway. Before Tuesday, Bush's four other vetoes – two on stem-cell research, one on Iraq, and one on a children's health-insurance bill – were upheld. Of the 11 spending bills pending before Congress, Bush has threatened to veto most.

"When you have veto fights, the actual spending issue is elevated in the national psyche," says Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation. That, he says, could motivate a discouraged GOP base in the next election.

"If gridlock is the source of discontent, this won't solve it," says Mr. Franc. "But if [Bush's approach] says that there's a big difference between the two parties – one stands for lower taxes, the other stands for the opposite – that choice will be made crystal clear as the '08 election unfolds."

Bush didn't always govern this way. As Texas governor, he worked with the Democratic-run legislature and accomplished much on his agenda. Early in his presidency, he achieved a major bipartisan education reform. But now, in the final quarter, Iraq has depleted his clout.

A pivotal moment came in June, when he sought to pass his No. 1 domestic initiative: comprehensive immigration reform. Bush was always more in sync with Democrats than Republicans on the issue, and the new Democratic majority seemed his last best hope. Ultimately, his own party failed him. Only 12 of 49 Republican senators backed him in the vote to end debate, and the effort collapsed.

"Because their president was so weak, and because of the nature of this campaign, pulling them significantly to the right, they abandoned him in droves," says Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "Many Republicans would just as soon have the Democratic Congress be a do-nothing Congress."

The fact that no one from the administration is running for the Republican nomination gives the president less incentive to foster a better working relationship with Congress, some observers say.

"Reagan was not only trying to create an environment in which a Republican could succeed him, but one in which a specific Republican, his own two-term vice president, could succeed him," says Bruce Schulman, a historian at Boston University.

He notes that this is the first election since 1952 when neither a sitting president nor a vice president is seeking the Oval Office. "That does affect the willingness of the president to compromise and work with Democrats and try to create a sense of accomplishment," Mr. Schulman adds. "Bush is trying to establish his legacy not by smoothing the way for his successor, but by clarifying where he stands on things."

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