As George W. Bush prepares for his inauguration and readies to take his agenda to Capitol Hill, a stiff resolve is emerging from the president-elect who won office by the narrowest of margins. The man who promised to unite Washington and get past partisanship has so far staked out unwavering positions on key issues that hew closely to his campaign promises.
His trillion-dollar tax cut remains the keystone of his plan. His school voucher plan and a national-missile defense system are top priorities.
On one level, Mr. Bush's tough talk may just be part of a well-worn Washington gambit: a bravado-filled opening line aimed at fashioning an image of strength, giving him room to compromise later.
But in taking a bold approach at the outset, he also runs a considerable risk. He threatens to raise Democrats' ire, throwing one of history's most closely divided Congresses into gridlock.
Already, with his nomination of many Washington insiders to cabinet posts, he's cast doubt on his outsider status. Now, if he shows little moderation in his conservatism, he'll "blow both things right off the bat," says William Leuchtenburg, a presidential historian at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. "Then Democrats, and many in the country, will say, 'This has been hokum all along,' and 'We have a conservative right-winger in the Oval Office.' "
But Bush's strategy may already be yielding dividends. His insistence that a large tax cut is needed to stave off a looming recession seems to have resonance on Capitol Hill, even among Democrats.
"I think we need a tax cut," said House minority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri yesterday. "It may be that it has to get bigger because the recession is looming, and we've got economic worries out there."
At an economic forum today in Austin, Texas, with high-tech leaders, Bush will likely continue to make his case for the $1.3 trillion cut. But pushing hard for the entire package could backfire.
"His agenda right now is entirely too dominated by the tax cut," says Dick Morris, a key former adviser to President Clinton and Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi. "He wasn't elected because of the tax cut. He was elected in spite of the tax cut."
If at first Bush seeks the entire cut, Mr. Morris says, he'll anger Democrats and possibly be unable to pass it because of the divided Congress. Then, if he ends up compromising, he risks upsetting conservative Republicans.
The momentum approach
Still, for the moment, Bush seems intent on pushing hard. And in some ways his early bravado mirrors his campaign strategy. From the beginning, Bush's presidential run was based upon projecting a sense of momentum. While that strategy served Bush fairly well on the hustings, it may be harder to use in governing - especially dealing with a skeptical Congress.
Even so, some longtime denizens of Capitol Hill's political battles believe Bush should be bold. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for one, cautions that liberals shouldn't expect Bush to kowtow.
"If you don't push for what you believe in, you actually lose ground," says Mr. Gingrich. Bush's strategy, he says, will be to work hard to pass his programs, "and reach out to people within that framework." He sees great possibilities for cooperation, especially with New Democrats.
After all, "in the Congress, you don't have to have everybody on your side," he says. "You only have to have enough people that you're in a position to pass what you want." That's eight to 10 Senate Democrats and 30 to 50 House Democrats.
But if Bush's experience in Texas is any guide, he'll also have to work hard to keep Republicans on his side.
Early on, that may not be a major problem. His conversations with Republicans suggest there will be acceptance for some bargaining even among the most conservative in the GOP.
"People on the right in the Republican Party seem to understand what a precarious position Bush is in - and they are willing to cut him some slack in order to compromise," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Holding fire from the right
Indeed, conservatives may give Bush breathing room on issues like education. If he doesn't push ahead with his support of private-school vouchers, for instance, "On the one hand, it would indicate a lack of commitment to principle," says Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative group here. "But on the other hand, many of us don't think the federal government should have a role in education, so why should they be giving out vouchers?"
Conservatives acknowledge he'll be in a bind on judicial appointments. "We'll insist he doesn't appoint political hacks, but instead goes for principled conservatives," says Mr. Fitton. "But given the split Senate, will he be able to do that?"
If Bush's predicament has created a swell of support within his own party, there's still the question of how long it will last. "The Clinton years were very chastening for Republicans, and this election was very chastening," says Professor Sabato. "It has softened the hard right up - for a while, for a while."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society