President Bush is on a quest - one that may be more important than passing his education plan or his prescription-drug program or a tax cut. He's searching for Washington's equivalent of Bob Bullock.
Mr. Bullock was the curmudgeonly lieutenant governor of Texas - a Democrat - with whom Mr. Bush formed a strong early alliance as governor. This friend, mentor, and political powerhouse cobbled together legislative deals and helped Bush succeed.
In Washington, a Bullock-like figure could play an even more significant role, helping Bush strike deals with Congress and sharing credit for whatever gets accomplished. He or she could be the keystone of success in the Bush presidency.
So far, the new president has met with some 90 members of Congress - about one-third of them Democrats. Ultimately, he may seek several Washington Bullocks - one for each program.
But amid the capital's partisan atmosphere, will Bush be able to find Democratic allies? "Well, you can find just about anything in Washington if you make an effort and you look in the right place," says Democratic wiseman Robert Strauss, whom Bush called to the White House last week to counsel him on Washington's ways.
While few in Washington have been looking for strong partnerships across partisan lines of late, politicians are also getting the message that "people are tired of squabbling and want to see progress on a few issues." That augurs well for Bush.
So far, there are a few likely candidates who could become Bush's Washington Bullock:
* Ironically, one could be Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut. The former vice-presidential nominee has returned to the Senate as a powerful New Democrat who could lead the way to compromise and partnership with Bush on several issues, especially education.
* Sen. John Breaux (D) of Louisiana is a longtime friend of the Bush family. He's been burnishing his reputation as a common-sense conciliator, although he may not have enough power and stature to pull off a full Bullock role.
* Sen. Zell Miller (D) of Georgia is already backing Bush's tax cuts. But as a freshman, he's not a major powerhouse.
* Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's comments last week supporting a tax cut could be the beginning of a growing alliance with Bush. He's at least made more people take Bush's tax-cut seriously. In fact, that was a key role Bullock played in Texas - lending credibility to Bush.
Mr. Greenspan has a history of presidential partnering. In 1993, he convinced then-rookie President Clinton to focus on debt reduction. Greenspan, in turn, kept interest rates low. Their tag-team economic moves helped boost the economy - and the popularity of both men.
In all, Bush may have to seek out several Bullocks. Or as political scientist Bruce Buchanan of the University of Texas at Austin puts it: "There are no magic Bullocks up there."
Partnership's key elements
Whether it's one person or several, the key elements of a Bush-Bullock-like relationship are a willingness to share credit for success, close personal ties, and a trust that each will keep his or her word even amid pressure to change their position.
In Texas, these factors combined with the two men's strengths to create a powerful partnership. "The combination of Bullock's clout and Bush's charm - which was quite useful at certain chokepoints - got a lot of things done," says Professor Buchanan.
Bush appears to be off to a strong start in his quest. One sign of this is that his many meetings with members of Congress have sparked worry among top Democrats that he'll peel off some of their more moderate members - such as Senators Lieberman and Breaux - and leave the leaders out of the loop.
Message to Daschle
In fact, Bush's implicit message to Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota is: "Either we're going to work with you or we're going to work around you," says Christopher Arterton, a political scientist at George Washington University here. If Senator Daschle doesn't cooperate, the Bush team is "going to try to schmooze their way into power with his members," he adds. In which case, Daschle himself may be forced to play something of a Bullock role.
But the political payoff for being a new Bullock could be big, observes Professor Arterton. "For the people who have aspirations of advancement" - like Lieberman or Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts - there are clear advantages to "picking a major issue and becoming the pivotal person dealing with the administration on it." They can then head into the 2004 presidential campaign with "the sense that they've achieved results."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society