First in a two-part series
WASHINGTON -- From his law office in the small Texas town of Henderson, former Democratic state Rep. Paul Sadler barely recognizes George W. Bush anymore.
When Bush served as Texas governor, Sadler probably negotiated with him more extensively than any other Democrat in the Legislature, forging agreements on difficult issues from education reform to taxes. Through that partnership, Sadler came to see Bush as a conciliator committed to building consensus across party lines.
Now, as he watches Bush operate in Washington, Sadler sees “a harder edge.”
“Almost all of us who had dealt with Bush, who were chairmen of committees or worked with him in Texas, have noticed the difference,” Sadler says. “There has not been that collaborative spirit. I don’t know if he’s changed since Texas or the Democrats are different in Washington, or maybe it’s both. But he is not the centrist as president that he was as governor.”
At home and abroad, Bush has surprised friends and critics with the ambition of his presidential agenda -- and the forceful, often confrontational, manner in which he has pursued it.
From a deal-maker in Texas, he has morphed into a back-breaker in Washington. With Congress and allies abroad, he has displayed a pugnacious style of leadership, advancing boldly ideological ideas that test the boundaries of consensus. He often has accepted compromise only when it appeared that he had no other choice.
“I remember describing Bush as an incrementalist when he was down here, and he was,” said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas. “He was not throwing the long pass. He was not a policy ideologue by any stretch of the imagination. Now all of a sudden he’s this guy who is deeply and passionately committed to a heavily substantive ideological agenda.”
This approach has brought Bush many successes, from a major 2001 tax cut to the United Nations resolution that returned arms inspectors to Iraq. But it also has produced a more polarizing presidency than his record in Texas, or his rhetoric in the 2000 campaign, might have predicted.
Bush advisors believe that by showing his commitment to bold change, he reinforces an image as a strong leader that could become his greatest asset for reelection. But Democrats believe Bush is unnecessarily dividing Congress and the country in ways that could threaten his legislative agenda and his prospects for a second term.
In 2000, Bush pledged to govern as a “uniter, not a divider” who would “change the tone in Washington.” On one level, he has succeeded -- personal animosity between the parties isn’t as intense as it was between congressional Republicans and President Clinton. But the policy differences between the two sides may be even wider than in the Clinton years.
Party-line voting in Congress has reached a new peak. According to Congressional Quarterly, Republicans went with their party on nearly 90% of the votes during Bush’s first two years, while Democrats voted with their party nearly 86% of the time.
And despite the public’s impulse to rally around the commander in chief in an unsettling age of global terrorism, opinion about Bush’s performance and priorities is at least as polarized as it was about Clinton’s. In the most recent poll conducted for The Times, 95% of Republicans said they approved of Bush’s performance, while just 28% of Democrats agreed.
These centrifugal tendencies predate Bush’s presidency. Party-line voting has increased steadily in Congress over the last 30 years. So has the gap between the president’s approval rating among voters from his own party and those from the opposition, said Matthew Dowd, director of polling at the Republican National Committee.
Yet Bush’s decisions have, in most respects, accelerated these trends.
The administration worked closely with Democrats on Bush’s education reform bill and the legislative response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And on issues such as campaign finance reform, corporate accounting reform and the federalization of airport security workers, he eventually acquiesced when bipartisan congressional majorities insisted on a course he had resisted.
But mostly, Bush has pursued as hard a line in pushing his goals with Congress as he has with the world over Iraq. His intent was clear even before he took office.
Shortly after the 2000 election, Nick Calio, the first White House director of legislative affairs, went to see Bush in Texas. When Calio started to walk through concessions he might have to make to pass the tax cut bill, Bush cut him off. “Nicky,” he said, “we will not negotiate with ourselves, ever.”
It’s a promise Bush has kept with a vengeance.
From his initial tax cut through a huge second round of tax reductions he has proposed this year, to his energy plan, his staunchly conservative judicial nominations and his new plans to restructure Medicare and Medicaid, Bush has consistently offered proposals that excite conservatives while holding little appeal even to centrist Democrats. Several moderate Republicans also have recoiled at elements of his new tax cut plan, and he’s been forced to back off his initial Medicare plan after objections from both parties.
“What you get now from Bush is a sense that this is a White House determined to squeeze every last bit of political advantage out of every situation,” says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank.
Indeed, centrist Democrats open to accommodation with Bush have complained that the White House has shown too little interest in working with them.
Moderate Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), who often has tried to operate as a bridge between the parties, has expressed frustration about being shut out on Medicare reform efforts, an issue where he has offered ideas similar to Bush’s.
“There’s been less negotiation on the policies that they are trying to push forward domestically -- health care and taxes -- than there has been in the past,” Breaux says.
Many Bush advisors acknowledge pursuing a hardball approach, but argue they are applying lessons from President Reagan on how to move the policy debate in their direction.
“Reagan’s approach was you push hard; Democrats come out against you; it seemed to be polarizing,” said one senior White House aide. “But Reagan held firm, aggressively pushed his position, and at the last minute cut a deal if he had to. Many times Democrats, at least some Democrats, came with him -- and Reagan got the legislation he wanted.”
Key to this vision has been maximizing Republican unity. Bush’s core legislative strategy has been to pass bills that track his preferences through the GOP-controlled House.
Then the White House tries to get whatever it can through the Senate, hoping to tilt the final product further in its direction in House-Senate negotiations.
That model worked in mid-2001 when the final bill produced a $1.35-trillion tax cut, about $200 billion more than the Senate had passed.
But after Democrats seized Senate control when Vermont’s James F. Jeffords quit the GOP to become an independent, Bush’s approach proved a recipe for stalemate on a series of issues.
Although the House passed measures Bush backed to reform health maintenance organizations, provide prescription drugs for seniors, increase government cooperation with religious charities and set a new energy policy, no bill ever reached him on those issues -- either because the House and Senate could not agree or because the Senate deadlocked along party lines.
In all four cases, Democrats complained that the White House made little effort to resolve the disagreements.
In talks over HMO reform, for instance, Senate advocates of the bill say administration officials did little more than recite insurance industry objections to the measure.
“What the hell do we care what the insurance industry thinks?” Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), one of the bill’s key sponsors, grumbled to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in one session.
Bush’s hands-off attitude marked a stark contrast with his earlier pattern. In Texas, Bush was renowned for bringing together legislators from both parties and asking what it would take to reach a deal. “That was constantly our conversation,” Sadler said.
But Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) has told friends he has only rarely had such pragmatic conversations with Bush. In turn, White House aides said that even when the administration moved toward Daschle’s position, the Democrat demanded more.
Most Bush advisors say it’s not possible to re-create the consensual approach he used in Texas because the environment in Washington is much more partisan.
Somewhat wistfully, Bush on several occasions told Calio, “In Texas, everybody was a lot friendlier and a lot more interested in the result than the process.”
And some Senate Republicans, such as Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, note that the administration, even if not typically working with Democrats, has not objected when they have done so.
On the morning after the Senate approved the final version of the 2001 tax bill with 12 Democratic votes, Bush called Grassley at 8:15 a.m. “I knew you were good,” Grassley said Bush told him, “but I didn’t know you were that good.”
Yet it is also clear that given the choice between making concessions that create a broader bipartisan majority and narrowly passing a bill that more closely tracks his preferences, Bush will choose the latter, White House aides agree.
The aides believe his hard-line approach energizes the GOP base -- his approval rating among Republicans exceeds even Reagan’s -- and reinforces his image as a strong, decisive leader. In effect, many of Bush’s key advisors see polarization as an acceptable cost for the demonstration of resolve and vision.
Buchanan, the Texas professor, sees these assumptions as a key to Bush’s different approach at the national level.
While the limited powers of the Texas governorship encourage a mediator’s role, he says, the White House appears to have concluded that Bush’s greatest form of leverage is his ability to change the parameters of debate with bold initiatives.
Some friends and foes also see in Bush a growing confidence after the Sept. 11 attacks in his own beliefs, which leads him to view domestic issues in the same black-and-white terms he has used to frame the war against terrorism.
The political risk is that this approach portrays Bush to swing voters as too rigid or too ideological. In polls, his presidency is dividing not only Democrats from Republicans, but drawing a bright line down the electorate’s center. In the recent poll by The Times, 62% of independents who consider themselves conservative said they were inclined to support Bush in 2004; but just 24% of liberal-to-moderate independents agreed.
As political storms gather at home, Bush seems as unaffected as he does by the international turmoil over Iraq.
“In general, he is more a goal-oriented person than a process-oriented person,” the senior White House aide said. “We are pursuing policies we believe are in the best interest of the country, which in the end will redound to his benefit. If that makes the process more contentious and polarized than we’d like, I think it is an acceptable price to pay.”
Next: Bush’s foreign policy.