How long will Bush’s strong talk hold up?

  • David Broder / Washington Post columnist
  • Saturday, December 16, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — No majority. No mandate. Not even broad public agreement that he deserved the prize that fell into his hands when the Supreme Court, itself deeply divided, ordered that the ballot recounts in Florida must halt. This is not the way George W. Bush hoped — or planned — to come to the presidency.

Fourteen months ago, in October 1999, when I interviewed the governor at his office in Austin, the subject of majorities and mandates was already on his mind. He talked about the frustration of watching his father’s legislative program stymied by what Bush called "the partisanship" of congressional Democrats, and he said he would hope to establish a less-polarized atmosphere in Washington, as he had in the state capitol.

He also spoke enviously of the example of Ronald Reagan, who had his way with Congress after defeating President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Reagan, said Bush, "spent his capital wisely and was able to bring the mandate of the people into the halls of Congress and pass his measures through a Democratic House and a Republican Senate."

Bush knew even then what his priorities would be — education reform, an overhaul of Social Security and Medicare, and major tax cuts. If he won, he said, he would go to Congress and say, "Here’s what I was elected to do, and I expect you to — I hope you will — support me on these measures. After all, the people spoke loud and clear."

Unfortunately for Bush, they didn’t, and so he enters the Washington power struggle shorn of the strongest weapon any president can have in dealing with Congress — a healthy fear on the part of lawmakers of defying his wishes.

Nothing rings more hollow on Capitol Hill than a threat from a president who does not have the power to carry it out. You may remember President Clinton’s 1994 State of the Union address, when he told a Democratic Congress that if they tinkered too much with his health care plan, "you will force me to take this pen, veto this legislation, and we’ll come right back here and start all over again." Clinton had won with 43 percent of the popular vote, trailing most members of Congress, and his threat was so empty that his fellow Democrats didn’t even bring a health care bill to a vote.

Bush enters office even weaker than Clinton — who, after all, defeated Bush’s father by 6 percentage points, with Ross Perot taking 19 percent. But he is not without tools that will be useful.

One is his personality. Like all successful politicians, Bush is highly competitive and confident in his own abilities. But his self-assurance leaves him unthreatened by having bright, able people around him, so long as he is sure of their loyalty. More important, he is willing to share successes with other politicians, so they can satisfy their own ego needs. He doesn’t hog the limelight.

Whatever he lacks in intellectual depth, he is skilled in human relationships. His education at the hands of the Texas Legislature has given him a shrewd understanding of the potential benefits of political compromise. A veteran of Congress who traveled occasionally with Bush during the campaign told me last week that he found "his thinking on pursuing bipartisanship both sincere and sophisticated." Bush was surprisingly knowledgeable, he said, about the legislative implications in the fight for the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee and the possible impact of Bill Frist’s acceptance of the chairmanship of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee on the Tennessee senator’s ability to be an honest broker with Democrats on health care issues.

Bush talked a great deal in the campaign — and in his first address to the nation Wednesday night as president-elect — about his ability to work with Democrats. But the Democrats he deals with here will have their eyes on the prize — winning the few seats they need in 2002 to recapture control of the House and Senate.

What’s really intriguing is how Bush will deal with the unreconstructed conservatives who dominate the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill. At the time of our 1999 interview, he had just had a run-in with the House GOP leaders over their plans to delay Treasury payments to low-income families, which Bush decried as an effort "to balance their budget on the backs of the poor."

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, the most outspoken of the hard-right gang, had shot back, "It’s obvious the governor’s got a lot to learn about Congress."

But Bush did not back down. When I asked him what he’d learned from the incident, he said, "I learned it’s important to speak my mind clearly so people can understand where the next president will be coming from."

Strong talk. Let’s see if he means it.

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