Sharp Partisan Split Threatens Bush Programs
“Before my term has ended,” John F. Kennedy warned Congress in the first days of his presidency, “we shall have to test anew whether a nation organized and governed such as ours can endure. The outcome is by no means certain.”
As Kennedy’s ominous tone illustrates, the stresses inherent in the federal system have been a constant concern for American presidents--none more than the constitutional division of power between Congress and the chief executive--and for none more than the chief executive who took the oath of office Friday.
What lies ahead for George Bush’s presidency, scholars and politicians believe, is an unprecedented blast of political turbulence during which both parties and both branches struggle to protect their interests while still trying to prevent the nation’s grave dilemmas from reaching critical mass.
Recognizing what he is up against, Bush used his inaugural address to make a dramatic appeal for bipartisanship. “We need harmony. . . . A new breeze is blowing, and the old bipartisanship must be made new again,” he said.
But the new President will need more than conciliatory gestures, because he confronts a political system more sharply divided along partisan lines than any other new President has faced in modern times.
Bush and Richard M. Nixon are the only elected presidents in this century to enter office with both houses of Congress in hostile hands. Moreover, the 85-seat Democratic majority in the House represents the biggest such margin against a new President in the 200-year history of the Constitution.
“We’re in for a combination of deadlock and coalition government,” University of Texas scholar Walter Dean Burnham predicts.
Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), an influential spokesman for House conservatives, foresees what he calls “schizophrenic muddling through,” a period shaped by ad hoc alliances that spring up to deal with one issue and then fade away to be replaced by another controversy and another coalition.
Bush’s predicament is probably the most conspicuous manifestation of the failure of either party to develop an enduring national majority during the postwar era.
“Divided government has become the norm,” Burnham asserts, pointing to the situation at the state level, where the November election left only 22 states in which one party controlled the governorship and both legislative chambers.
Here in the nation’s capital, the new Administration is well aware of the potential perils of divided government.
“This is really a test of the system,” Bush’s White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu says. “You look at the Constitution and I guess this is the kind of constructive tension that people planned on when they put that document together.”
But the framers of the Constitution, whose handiwork reflects their view of the limited scope of governmental responsibilities, hardly would have foreseen the range and scale of the problems Bush and the congressional Democrats must address:
A federal budget deficit of about $150 billion and a trade defict of close to that amount, the insolvencies in the savings and loan industry and structural flaws in nuclear weapons plants, each of which is likely to cost tens of billions of dollars to alleviate--not to mention problems of economic productivity and international competitiveness so profound that no one can claim to understand them fully.
Then there are the violent and devastating afflictions of inner-city drug use, the structural nightmares of the underclass at home and the specters of terrorism, Third World debt and erosion of the taboo against chemical weapons abroad.
One measure of the difficulty Bush faces is provided by contrasts between his situation vis-a-vis the Congress and that of his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, when he entered the Oval Office.
Reagan could look to the Senate for support on Capitol Hill; his landslide 1980 election victory had helped convert that body to GOP control. As for the House, though the Democrats had a nominal majority of 50 seats, Reagan and the Republicans were often able to overcome this deficit by combining forces with conservative Democrats, the so-called boll weevils, on key economic policy votes.
By contrast, Democrats have recaptured the Senate and Bush must deal with a Democratic House majority more than half again as large as the one that confronted Reagan. Moreover, Brookings Institution senior fellow A. James Reichley says, there are fewer boll weevils in the 101st Congress, many of their seats now being held by Republicans or less conservative Democrats.
“There aren’t that many conservative Democrats left, which makes it harder to use the old solution of forming a coalition between conservative Democrats and Republicans,” says Reichley, author of “Conservatives in an Age of Change,” a study of the Nixon and Gerald R. Ford presidencies.
“Bush just doesn’t have the allies he needs,” says Peter Teeley, a longtime Bush adviser and a veteran of Capitol Hill himself. “It’s like trying to play the San Francisco 49ers with only seven men on your side.”
Against these odds, Bush’s best weapon may turn out to be his own personal skills at conciliation and ingratiation. “We’re going to have a test of the charm of the President,” predicts Henry Graff, Columbia University presidential historian.
So far, by the account of some leaders of his loyal opposition, Bush has passed that test with flying colors. “Every signal he’s given us is that he wants to work with us,” says Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), the House majority whip. He cites the meetings and telephone conversations Bush had during the transition with such influential congressional Democrats as House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine, Coelho and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois.
In their early judgments, Coelho and other Capitol Hill Democrats find Bush’s operating style preferable to that of his immediate White House predecessors, Reagan and Democrat Jimmy Carter.
“Basically, the difference between Bush and Carter and Reagan is that they said the system is bad and we’re going to change the system,” Coelho contends. “I think Bush is going to say: ‘Here’s the problem. How does the system solve the problem?’ ”
Mitchell expresses a similarly positive view of the incoming head of the executive branch. “Bush is an active participant in decision-making; Reagan is not,” Mitchell says. “He (Bush) is intellectually curious; Reagan is not. He knows and likes members of Congress. I don’t think Reagan had much to do with members of Congress.”
But other Capitol Hill veterans point out that there are limits to the persuasive power even of presidential charm. “So far, he appears to exhibit a real sense of how to deal on the inside and how to butter people up and touch all the bases,” says Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and an unsuccessful contender for his party’s 1988 presidential nomination.
“But all that carries you only so far,” Gephardt says. “And then you get down to where the rubber meets the road. And that gets you down to the budget and other issues where there are strong differences--programmatic and substantive and philosophical--over what ought to be done.”
Hardly anyone doubts that Bush will find it in his interest to seek solutions to the budget and other problems by striking compromises with the Democratic majorities in Congress. But some lawmakers question as a practical matter how much freedom the new President will have to do this.
“There are going to be some pretty tough issues, and you begin by compromising on them,” says conservative Republican Rep. Harris W. Fawell from Illinois. “But there’s just so much consensus and compromise that you can do. Then you have to say: ‘I just don’t go for the concept.’
“There’s going to be a requirement on his part where he has to make darn sure that he’s not ignoring the feelings of a whole lot of Republicans. There are going to be times when he’s going to have to say (to Democrats): ‘I can’t go along with this.’ ”
Complicating this problem for Bush is the fact that the mood among the 175 House Republicans is not conducive to compromise with the Democratic majority. Many are resentful that their party has not controlled the House since 1954--and bitter about the allegedly highhanded tactics of the Democratic majority.
“If I were a House Republican, I would have quit or gone insane years ago,” says Sen. Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming, the GOP whip. “Over there, the Democrats consider it fun to stick it to the Republicans.”
Some Democrats contend that House Republicans, particularly the most conservative among them, represent a serious headache for Bush because their ideological commitment could stand in the way of compromise.
“The House Republicans have gone right wing,” Coelho argues, “and of all four groups (House and Senate Democrats, House and Senate Republicans) are the most purist of any of them.”
But Bush advisers say the new President will not turn his back on lawmakers from his own party. “I’ve talked to Republican House members, a lot of them,” Sununu says. “I think there’s a very common agenda and they want to be part of solving the problem.
“Just because the other side has the most votes, you don’t ignore your friends.”
House conservative leaders say that the new President has little choice if he wants to prosper politically. Asked about the possibility of Bush forging an alliance with Democrats and centrist conservatives in Congress, Gingrich, founder of the Conservative Opportunity Society, says: “If that can be done with support of conservatives it will be a winning coalition. If that is done at the expense of conservatives, it will destroy the Bush presidency. And Bush knows that.
“You cannot govern from the left in this country,” Gingrich says. “And you cannot govern against the right if you’re a Republican.”
The political future, as Gingrich sees it, will depend on what issue is under debate. “You’re going to get a significant number of issues where it’s to the practical advantage of both Bush and the Democrats to work together,” he says.
“On the other hand, on very fundamental values Bush and the left-wing Democrats are fundamentally different. On those kind of things you’re going to see head-on direct conflict.”
In the case of conflict, Gingrich thinks that Bush will not hesitate to use his veto power, much as did Presidents Harry S. Truman and Ford, two of the most frequent vetoers of modern times.
But with Bush, Gingrich says, “it will be done more pleasantly, more like (President Dwight D.) Eisenhower.”
Times researcher Aleta Embrey contributed to this story.