The bitter fight that culminated in the Senate’s rejection of former Republican Sen. John Tower as defense secretary Thursday inflicted personal wounds on both sides of the aisle and seared George Bush’s relations with the Democratic-controlled Congress only 48 days into his presidency.
But the question of how profound the impact of the battle will be on the major policy decisions President Bush and the Congress must deal with in the months ahead appears still to hang in the balance.
Bush can recover quickly from the embarrassing defeat, members of both parties agreed Thursday, but only if he moves swiftly to nominate a qualified candidate for secretary of defense and establishes a well-focused agenda for his Administration as a whole.
“The critical thing is whether he comes right back with a strong appointment and puts this to rest or stumbles another week trying to find someone,” said a key Republican strategist. “This thing has been a terrible distraction and has stepped all over the things Bush has wanted to talk about.
“Bush has got to set an agenda now, or Congress will set it for him,” the GOP strategist said.
Senate Democratic Whip Alan Cranston of California, who says that the next Pentagon nominee must be “eminently qualified,” thinks that Bush squandered the opening days of his presidency by getting mired in the Tower controversy and “failing to focus on any major matter he wanted to move on swiftly.”
And in some key areas, the bruising legacy of the Tower fight is likely to haunt Bush for months to come--notably on defense policy and the on-going struggle between the President and Congress over their respective roles in governing the nation. In particular, the already powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Democrat Sam Nunn of Georgia, is likely to become an even more formidable problem for Bush.
Opposing Tower was the boldest move of Nunn’s usually understated Senate career. He came out of the struggle with his image as a “statesman” battered--unfairly, sources close to him say he believes--but with a new reputation as a determined partisan leader.
Nunn almost certainly will play a critical--and potentially more determined--role in shaping such pending issues as the future direction of U.S. strategic weapons, reform of the scandal-plagued Pentagon procurement system and the relative power of the President and Congress in setting national security policy.
Ironically, the biggest loser in the Senate action--other than Tower and perhaps Bush--could turn out to be the man who is perhaps the Democrats’ most prominent member of Congress: House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas. The Senate action means that House Democrats will be under intense pressure to hold Wright to high standards when the House Ethics Committee makes its report on an investigation into Wright’s finances, probably next week.
In the immediate aftermath of Thursday’s vote, self-interest was pushing both congressional Democrats and the Bush White House in the direction of papering over the cleavage.
Bush, mindful that he can do little without cooperation from the overwhelmingly Democratic House and Senate, issued a conciliatory statement. Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), a close friend of Bush, said that it is “goofy” for anyone to think that bipartisanship would not return to the Senate.
“I’ve just been talking with Sam Nunn and (Senate Majority Leader) George Mitchell (of Maine) and we’re back to business as usual,” he said.
A senior White House aide agreed that the Tower loss does not spell doom for the rest of Bush’s presidency.
“The sun’s going to come up tomorrow, George Bush is still going to be President, Sam Nunn is still going to be chairman of the Armed Services Committee. We’re here for years, he’s here for years,” said one senior White House aide. “People aren’t going to say, ‘I voted against John Tower, that means I can now vote more against George Bush on other issues,’ it doesn’t work like that; there’s no nexus.”
Calls to Bush
Similarly, many Democrats worried about voters’ reaction to the GOP charge that they rejected Tower for purely partisan reasons. Nunn and Mitchell telephoned Bush after the Senate vote to say they wanted to work with him in “a cooperative and constructive fashion.”
Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the former majority leader, sought to downplay the Tower fight as “one of those passing storms that’s gone by and gone out to sea” and said: “We’ll have fair weather until the next storm comes along.”
In fact, GOP National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater said Thursday that “it won’t be street wisdom, but all the Democrats in the Senate for the next three or four weeks will go out of their way to work with the White House in an unprecedented manner to prove that this was not the partisan way they want to operate. That should make for smooth sailing for other Bush appointments.”
Beneath the surface, however, hard feelings may not fade so quickly after such a rancorous Senate debate. Republicans in particular indicated they are unlikely to soon forget the battering one of their former colleagues took on the Senate floor.
Some Republican senators angrily predicted that it would hurt Bush on the international stage. Others said it would weaken him in his relations with Congress.
“What it tells the world,” said Sen. Steve Syms (R-Ida.), “is that George Bush, who was elected President of the United States, really has to kowtow to a Congress with a different ideological viewpoint.”
Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah) said the Senate action “set a bad precedent for the future” and Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.) said, “It’s going to be hard to pull all the pieces back together.”
Republicans were especially upset that FBI files quoting anonymous sources on drinking and womanizing allegations against Tower were used by the Democrats in the Senate debate.
Pressure Over Wright
Democrats as well as Republicans said the Senate’s repudiation of Tower along basically partisan lines puts Democrats under extraordinary pressure to take some action against the House Speaker if the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct finds that he violated ethics rules.
The committee has been investigating complaints that Wright broke House rules in a variety of financial dealings. If the panel finds serious violations, it could recommend that the full House reprimand, censure or expel Wright.
The House fight in the current atmosphere could turn out to be every bit as bitter as the Senate fight over Tower, since the committee investigation was instigated by complaints against Wright by angry Republicans.
The Senate action, said Cranston, “probably will make the fight over Wright even nastier. I imagine some Republicans will be out for blood, having lost in the Senate and having had their blood spilled.” Several Republican strategists said they think Nunn’s reputation for statesmanlike qualities had been tarnished by his role in the Tower fight. And two days ago Nunn himself predicted: “When it’s over, I’m going to be bruised. I knew that when I started. I understood that . . . I’ll be bruised, but I’m not going to have any grudges at all, and we’ll proceed and try to do the nation’s business.”
Although Nunn has emerged unscathed from past Senate fights, this time Republicans took after him personally, even spreading the story about a 1972 auto accident that raised questions about whether Nunn, then 26, had been driving while drunk.
Calls Nunn Opportunist
The bitter residue of the contest was reflected in comments by Jim Lake, a Bush strategist during the presidential campaign. Lake said that it “showed Nunn is now a partisan guy who moves when he sees an opportunity and doesn’t mind sullying a man’s reputation. Nunn was always thought to be above that.”
But Atwater said that while Nunn’s reputation as “almost a statesman” was damaged, “if his goal was to show that he could be a strong leader in a partisan fight, he succeeded.”
Mitchell also was cited by several strategists of both parties as one of the players who came out on top in a fight that some participants said produced only losers, no winners.
“Everybody’s been talking about this being a loser for everyone, that the Senate comes out looking bad, the President, certainly John Tower, but I’m not so sure that there isn’t one winner and that’s George Mitchell,” said a Republican strategist involved in the Tower fight.
“He consolidated his power and showed he’s a force to be reckoned with.”
Although his was a losing effort, Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas, who fought bitterly and forcefully on Tower’s behalf, shed his reputation as a reluctant ally of the President.
Dole strengthened his ties to the President, said Atwater, who quoted Bush as saying, “Dole really goes to bat, and I appreciate it.”