Bush faces hard task uniting the nation


Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON – George W. Bush campaigned for the presidency promising to be “a uniter, not a divider.” Now, as president-elect, Bush must try to keep that promise under more difficult circumstances than anyone imagined.

The Texas governor will enter the White House with an uncertain mandate. He came in second in the nation’s popular vote and won the state-by-state electoral vote only after 36 days of legal wrangling. Polls show that most Americans consider Bush the legitimate president and will probably grant him the usual “honeymoon,” but the new chief executive knows he has little leeway for political error.

Bush sought to send a message of soothing bipartisan conciliation in his first statement as president-elect.

“I am optimistic that we can change the tone of Washington, D.C.,” Bush said. “I believe things happen for a reason, and I hope the long wait of the last five weeks will heighten a desire to move beyond the bitterness and partisanship of the recent past.”

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said the president-elect “wants to seize the moment, set the right tone, reach out to Democrats and Republicans and get people working together.”

But it won’t be easy.

“The governor is coming in with his eyes wide open. He’s been to Washington before,” Fleischer said. “He’s hoping to change it, but he knows what it’s like.”

Democrats in Congress, fresh from the losing battle to capture Florida’s electoral votes for Vice President Al Gore, say they will give Bush a chance to be bipartisan – but warn that they want to be met halfway.

“We’re happy to do business, but it has to be a compromise,” said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate Democratic whip. “If he comes in with both guns blazing, he’ll leave in about 30 hours with no ammunition.”

“I think we’ll need a unifier more than ever before,” said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., the Senate majority leader. “A lot of Democrats will try to help him in that; some will say, ‘We’ll never accept it,’ I guess. But he will have to work extra hard to get some things done for the country.”

The president-elect already is launching a charm offensive to try to heal the nation’s wounds, aides say. It began even before his conciliatory victory statement with the appointment of Andrew Card – a moderate Republican with friends in both parties – as White House chief of staff, and it will include a rapid round of meetings with President Clinton and Democratic congressional leaders; the appointment of at least one Democrat to a Cabinet position; and a search for early legislative actions that can win support from both sides of the aisle.

Even in a deeply divisive campaign, Bush said, “there was remarkable consensus about the important issues before us: excellent schools, retirement and health security, tax relief, a strong military, a more civil society. We have discussed our differences; now it is time to find common ground and build consensus to make America a beacon of opportunity in the 21st century.”

“We want to create a tone that will dissuade both sides from continuing the warfare,” one Bush adviser said.

Bush and his aides like to point to his six years as governor of Texas as a model for his coming presidency.

In the Texas Capitol and later as a presidential candidate, Bush followed three basic rules. He married conservative principles to political flexibility. He chose a few top priorities and stuck to them. And he combined a seemingly laid-back style with iron organizational discipline.

That approach brought Bush success in Texas politics, where bipartisan compromise is a way of life. But now he faces a tougher challenge: transplanting his style from deal-friendly Austin, Texas, to the stonier, more partisan soil of Washington.

If the president-elect follows the path he blazed in Texas, he will reach out quickly to both Republicans and Democrats in the closely divided Congress. (In Texas, Bush set out to visit all 181 members of the Legislature in his first two months – and nearly succeeded.)

He will choose three or four priorities from among his campaign promises and focus on getting something – anything – done on each of them. Aides are betting he’ll start with education, prescription drug benefits for the elderly and initial steps toward a process to reform the Social Security system. Fleischer says Bush still plans to propose the big, across-the-board tax cut that was a cornerstone of his campaign but adds that the president-elect is willing to negotiate with Democrats over the details.

Bush will clash once or twice with conservative leaders of his own party, such as House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who may not always be happy with his willingness to compromise.

“He doesn’t have to worry about that; it will happen on its own,” said former Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo.

Bush, 54, will enter the White House at the peak of a meteoric political career. He has held only one public office, his current job as governor. (He was elected in 1994 and re-elected in 1998.)

But that slim official resume may be deceiving. The son and grandson of Republican grandees, Bush has been a political animal since his boyhood. As early as 1963, at the age of 17, he confided to a friend that his father, George H.W. Bush, intended to run for president – and that he, the first son, hoped “to do just like his dad,” according to biographer Bill Minutaglio.

Before the younger Bush won public office, his career took some long detours: political work on Republican campaigns, a failed 1978 run for a House seat in Texas, a decade running a sputtering oil company, and high-profile success as managing partner of the Texas Rangers baseball franchise. In the middle, in 1986, came a life-changing decision: a turn to evangelical Christianity – and away from alcohol.

But all along, the idea of politics was there with more deliberation and strategy than Bush’s insouciant manner betrayed. He attached himself to his father’s budding presidential campaign in 1986, apprenticed himself to hard-nosed strategist Lee Atwater and became the Bush family’s liaison to Christian conservative groups. As a loyalty enforcer in the Bush White House, he took on the difficult task of firing his father’s ineffective chief of staff, John Sununu, in 1991.

Associates say the younger Bush learned three lessons from those years, especially from his father’s stinging defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton in 1992. One was to stake out clear priorities on domestic issues close to voters’ hearts. The second was to stick to those priorities and resist being thrown off track by external events. The third was to take advantage of political momentum and not rest on your laurels, as the elder Bush appeared to do after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

“He’s a much better politician than his dad,” said a leading Republican who has worked closely with both Bushes. “Part of it is that he knows you have to use your political capital or you’ll lose it. … Part of it is his feel for the political angles of every issue – not just electoral politics, coalition-building politics.”

Republican state Sen. Teel Bivins, a Bush ally in the Texas Legislature, put it more simply: “Cobblers’ sons make the best shoes.”

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