Insights: Politics

With a disputed election and partisan policies, the self-proclaimed "healing" president has his work cut out for him
| By Tom Wicker | From The Sopranos, Mar/Apr 01

Midway through his shortened transition period, George W. Bush -- despite his campaign promises to be a "healer" -- clearly had come out punching rather than pacifying. Perhaps by design, the man who pledged to put an end to partisan bickering in Washington looked as if he'd be a stand-up fighter instead.

He might have been expected to start compromising right away, owing not just to his own rhetoric, but to a razor's-edge election that made him a disputed, minority president nudged into office by a Supreme Court split along partisan lines.

Instead, Vice President Richard Cheney, who looks more and more like the quarterback of the new Bush administration, called a different signal. He said it would be "silly" to expect the new president to abandon his program merely because of a close election. And Bush didn't.

Rather than demanding quick, confidence-building victories, for instance, the new president placed early emphasis on two hotly debated proposals -- for a national missile defense system and a $1.6 trillion tax cut.

Among his notable early appointments was that of former Missouri Senator John Ashcroft -- who'd just lost his reelection bid to a dead man -- to be attorney general. Ashcroft's outspoken opposition to abortion and affirmative action immediately produced promises of a confirmation battle from Democrats, liberals and civil rights activists.

In later appointments, Bush further courted partisan bickering by naming Gale Norton of Colorado as secretary of the interior and Linda Chavez as secretary of labor. Environmentalists regard Ms. Norton as hostile to their cause, particularly on land use; minority groups deplored, then and now, Ms. Chavez's controversial service on the Reagan Administration's Civil Rights Commission.

The Chavez nomination, controversial as it was, failed to last for a different reason. Within days, it was disclosed that the secretary-designate once sheltered an illegal alien woman. Whether she actually had "employed" the woman was in question; but given the aftermath of a disputed election and the precedents from eight years ago, when some Clinton nominees had the same problems with illegal aliens, Ms. Chavez was forced to withdraw her name -- and did so without protest from the Bush transition team.

As if unabashed, however, even by a new Congress barely under Republican control, Bush showed no sign of retreating from some of his more divisive campaign proposals: partially privatizing Social Security, a voucher-like education program, oil drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, and moving slowly, if at all, against global warming.

These moves and intentions, far from ending partisan warfare in Washington, amount to a prescription for more of the same -- intensified. And even if the president precipitates no other battles himself, he will have plenty of conflict thrust upon him.

He must deal, for instance, with the stated intent of his old primary rival, Senator John McCain of Arizona, to reintroduce the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. This time the Democrats, holding 50 Senate seats, think they can beat the expected Republican filibuster.

Will a recently inaugurated President Bush try to head off that filibuster by his own party? If a campaign finance reform bill finally passes, will he sign it?

When Bush gets around to nominating federal judges, as he must, he'll find the Democrats -- now wielding half the votes in the Senate -- ready and eager to repay the Republicans for their foot-dragging on Democratic nominees during the Clinton administration -- a policy of delay that evoked complaints even from Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

Nor has President Clinton's impeachment, mostly by Republican votes, been forgotten on the Democratic sides of the aisle in the House and Senate -- any more than the Republicans who cast those votes had forgotten the Democrats' refusal to confirm the Reagan nominee, Robert Bork, for the Supreme Court.

It's not just the Democrats -- bitter as many still are at the loss of an election they thought they had won -- with whom Bush must contend. Arch Republican conservatives like Dick Armey and Tom Delay in the House and Jesse Helms in the Senate -- after holding their tongues and maybe their noses during Bush's campaign as a "compassionate conservative" -- are ready to assert congressional prerogatives against those of even a Republican president.

When President Clinton expressed limited approval of a treaty to establish an international war crimes tribunal, for instance, Helms immediately restated his emphatic opposition -- and Bush said he would not send the treaty, in its present form, to the Senate for ratification.

Outside official Washington, the so-called "religious right" -- led by those twin towers of righteousness, the Revs. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell -- quickly decried the notion, which Bush's early talk had helped to spread, that he should conciliate Democrats or liberals by appointing them to high office. Whether for that reason or not, Bush found only one Democrat -- Clinton's secretary of commerce, Norman Mineta -- willing to enter the Cabinet (and at that as the relatively low-ranking secretary of transportation).

The new president also will encounter stronger than usual opposition from the black community, and for more than the appointment of Linda Chavez. Not only did Bush receive even fewer black votes than a Republican presidential candidate usually does -- fewer than Bob Dole in 1996, for instance -- but blacks also believe that many of their votes in Florida were not counted and that numbers of would-be black voters were turned away from the polls in that state and elsewhere.

Bush's support for school vouchers -- though he may not call them that -- and his opposition to affirmative action also have caused disaffection that black leaders say is unlikely to be dispelled by black appointments to high administration positions -- like that of Ron Paige to be secretary of education -- or by Bush's insistence that "what's in my heart" is concern for all Americans. What's in Bush's program that may benefit black citizens will be of greater interest to them.

Against this background, and after Bush's bizarre election, a huge tax cut criticized as favoring the wealthy and a missile defense that's highly controversial at home and abroad seem almost quixotic -- especially when easier first approaches are available. Quick action, for instance, on a popular Medicare reform -- a prescription drug benefit for older Americans -- might yet be possible. Both parties favor the idea, though in differing forms.

Education is another area in which both Democrats and Republicans believe that reform is needed. Cheney has predicted strong administration action and Bush has said that the first bill he'll send to Congress will concern education. But agreement will be difficult to achieve -- particularly if Bush insists on vouchers or federal grants to enable children to attend private schools. That approach is strongly opposed by most Democrats and by the American Federation of Teachers, and has failed in state referenda in California and Michigan. A Cleveland voucher program recently was declared unconstitutional in federal court.

No overall partisan agreement exists, however, on missile defense. The arguments against the proposal include the fact that deployment would abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, for years the centerpiece of international arms control policy. For that and other reasons, the Russians, the Chinese and major U. S. allies oppose American deployment. The necessary technology has yet to be, and may never be, developed and the cost is sure to be astronomical -- $60 billion over four years even for the land-based plan that Clinton explored and that Bush has called inadequate.

The necessity for such a defense, moreover, rests only on intelligence estimates that may or may not prove accurate. These estimates suggest that sometime in the near future, the United States may be vulnerable to missiles fired by "rogue nations" -- North Korea and Iraq are the usual suspects, though neither is known as yet to have developed weapons of the necessary sophistication.

To critics, this seems flimsy justification for a highly debatable program reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's hugely expensive, overhyped and unsuccessful "Star Wars." But Republicans and hawks generally, together with the Pentagon and some Democrats, have strongly supported development and deployment.

In his first appearance before the media, Bush's secretary of state, Colin Powell, forcefully stated that the new administration intended to "go forward" with its own version of missile defense, not necessarily land-based. Bush then emphasized this intention by naming Donald Rumsfeld to be secretary of defense. Rumsfeld -- who also headed the Defense Department in the Ford administration -- was chairman of the special intelligence board that first cited the supposed need for missile defense against rogue nations.

Bush has offered something of a Keynesian defense of his huge tax cut proposal -- that an across-the-board reduction in marginal rates might be necessary to offset a probable decline in the economy. That could put him at odds with those in Congress who prefer more limited forms of tax reduction -- elimination of the estate tax, for example, and of the so-called marriage penalty. Public and bipartisan support already exists for those and other targeted tax cuts.

Prior to his January 25 reversal regarding broad cuts (seen by some observers as a political move), Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan favored use of the budget surplus to reduce the national debt rather than for extensive tax cuts. He and his Reserve colleagues, as well as most economists, also prefer management of monetary policy -- interest rates and the money supply -- to combat possible recession. Counter-cyclical tax cuts cannot always be timed properly, usually can't be quickly approved in Congress, and therefore may take effect too late to stimulate the economy. And if interest-rate reduction by the Fed -- started with a half-percent cut in early January -- already has stimulated economic recovery, tax reduction might even prove inflationary.

On the question of military intervention abroad -- another issue likely to provoke controversy in Washington -- Powell and Bush's national security adviser, Condoleeza Rice, are known to take a cautious view, particularly of "humanitarian" intervention, and to consider an explicit "exit plan" a prerequisite before military intervention is authorized.

Neither is clearly on record, however, as to their attitude towards economic intervention abroad -- as when the Clinton administration "bailed out" Mexico from its peso crisis. Bush's nomination of Paul H. O'Neill to be secretary of the treasury also left unanswered this major question: What will the new administration do if and when a financial, rather than a military, intervention abroad may seem in order?

Predictable opposition, of course, does not necessarily mean that Bush cannot achieve much politically. Bill Clinton did, in spite of the supposed gridlock in Washington, his personal peccadilloes, and the extreme Republican animosity against him. The outgoing president achieved the nation's recent years of economic growth, its accumulation of a huge national budget surplus, and remarkable prosperity for many in the lower as well as the higher income brackets.

Depending heavily on Bush's personal performance as president, and his ultimate ability to work with Congress, it should be possible for him, too, to cope with -- if not always surmount -- his numerous problems; other presidents who lacked a popular mandate have done it. The institutional power of the presidency remains, though Bush's popularity may have been impaired by his tarnished election. His ability to use the "bully pulpit" -- so effective as a weapon for Clinton -- is still to be judged, and he's obviously not off to a particularly good start with a Congress virtually split between the parties.

On the other hand, Bush already has signaled that he won't be pushed around or intimidated politically -- a necessary message for any president to send to Washington's voracious wolves, in and out of Congress. Had Bush's first actions been more conciliatory or timid, he might have created a dangerous opposite impression.

The outlook for Bush to bring an end to bickering in Washington, however, is not bright and never was -- nor does the effort seem to be a high priority for him. Even in its virulent current form, partisan hostility predates the disputed vote counting in Florida and is likely to continue past Bush's "first hundred days" or even his term in office.

In view of the way he came to the White House, Democratic antipathy to him might even replicate the rage against Bill Clinton that so many Republicans exhibited in the last eight years. Which may be why George Bush decided he had little choice except to go his own way.


Tom Wicker was a political columnist for 25 years for The New York Times until his retirement in 1991. He now lives in Vermont.