Despite Claims, Bush Wavers on Decisiveness

Times Staff Writers

By the time President Bush mounts the podium tonight to accept his party’s renomination, few viewers will have missed the Republican National Convention’s central message: He is a strong, decisive leader who, unlike Democratic opponent John F. Kerry, steers a steady course through shifting tides of public opinion.

“Some call it stubbornness; I call it principled leadership,” former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said this week. “President Bush has the courage of his convictions.”

But a review of Bush’s first-term record paints a more complex portrait: While he has been bold and unflinching on some issues -- especially Iraq and tax policy -- on a host of other fronts he has been uncertain, on the sidelines or inconsistent.

While he has advocated overhauling Social Security -- a goal that may be impossible to achieve without presidential leadership -- he has been vague about exactly how he wants to do it. Although for months the administration expressed doubt about the need for creating a Department of Homeland Security, he now counts it as among his signal accomplishments.


He fought a bill revising the campaign finance system, but signed it rather than using his veto power.

Indeed, he has not yet vetoed any measure -- even big spending bills loathed by his conservative supporters. If he keeps up that track record, Bush would be the first president never to wield a veto since James Garfield, who was shot to death after less than a year in office.

“He is much more uneven as a leader than we’re hearing this week,” said Paul C. Light, a professor in the School of Public Service at New York University. “There are some issues that appear to trigger a determined reaction and others where he doesn’t know where he stands or will go with the flow.”

By focusing so heavily on the president’s decisiveness, the Bush campaign is making his leadership style key to the case for his reelection. That focus dovetails with the GOP attack on Kerry, a senator from Massachusetts, for changing positions on matters such as the war in Iraq, the No Child Left Behind Act education bill and trade policy.

“All I’m asking you to do is tell your friends and neighbors: Be careful of somebody whose position shifts in the wind,” Bush said this week at a rally in West Virginia.

Kerry supporters have tried to challenge Bush’s claim to being a decisive leader by pointing out inconsistencies -- such as his recent statement that, contrary to his earlier assertions, the war on terrorism could not be won. (Bush on Tuesday declared the war winnable, saying of his earlier comment: “I probably needed to be a little more articulate.”)

Kerry backers also argue that, however decisive Bush may be, he is leading in the wrong direction.

“Sticking with the wrong policy is not the way to govern,” said Phil Singer, a Kerry campaign spokesman. “This isn’t decisiveness. This is a failed policy.”

Bush campaign officials say that some of Bush’s shifting stances have been minor adjustments to account for new conditions and information. “The president has adapted his positions to the circumstances,” one senior campaign official said.

Still, Bush’s 2002 decision to impose steel tariffs strongly contrasted with the tough language he used during the 2000 presidential campaign to denounce such trade protectionism.

“I will work to end tariffs and break down barriers everywhere entirely, so that the whole world trades in freedom,” he said in 1999. But in office, and faced with the economies of politically crucial states battered by foreign steel production, Bush slapped tariffs on imports.

He cast the decision as a response to unfair trading practices by foreign nations, which had caused layoffs and bankruptcies at U.S. steel companies.

“When there are unfair trade practices, this president will act,” said White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan. But many free-market conservatives saw it as an act of political opportunism to gain favor with voters in swing states.

Bush lifted the tariffs last December, saying they had “achieved their purpose” of giving the U.S. steel industry time to restructure.

In some instances, Bush has quickly staked out a position and then retreated in the face of strong public sentiment. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, senior administration officials spoke out against creating a separate Cabinet-level department to coordinate domestic security.

“There does not need to be a Cabinet-level office of homeland security,” Ari Fleischer, then-White House press secretary, said a month after the Sept. 11 attacks. Seven months after that comment, Tom Ridge, then serving as the president’s homeland security advisor, said he would “probably recommend” that Bush veto a bill creating a new department.

But after congressional momentum behind the bill became almost unstoppable, Bush announced in a nationally televised address that he would support creation of a Department of Homeland Security. Ridge ultimately was named to head it.

Bush aides insist that was not a reversal. White House spokesman Dan Bartlett said the White House never opposed the department’s creation. Rather, he said, Bush kept his views to himself and a few top aides in order to minimize bureaucratic opposition to such a massive consolidation of federal agencies -- a plan that some of the president’s Cabinet secretaries might have resisted.

Bush has continued to push for tax cuts, even as the federal budget deficit has burgeoned and some Republicans have grown wary of another tax reduction initiative. And he has been stalwart in pursuing his policies toward Iraq, even as polls have shown public support for the effort has dwindled.

Still, he has revised and retreated from past statements about the U.S. mission in Iraq and the rationale for war. For instance, he has backed away from once-definitive claims about Iraq’s stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.

In several domestic policy areas, some of Bush’s conservative supporters say, he has not been as decisive as he has been abroad. They were rankled when he did not veto the campaign finance measure. They were disappointed he did not fight an expensive agriculture bill that substantially increased subsidies for farmers.

In last year’s debate over a bill that provided prescription drug coverage under Medicare, many conservatives said Bush gave too much ground in the expansion of the program and got too little in return by way of market-oriented reforms.

“Some of us have been frustrated with that,” said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.). “But the president has had such an intensely divided Congress, he doesn’t have the votes to be decisive on Capitol Hill.”

He also may record his first veto -- and shore up his credentials as a fiscal conservative -- if Congress passes a pending highway bill that the administration has criticized as too pricey.

On some issues, Bush’s leadership has involved putting proposals on the table but, in the view of many, not exercising the muscle needed to push tough issues through Congress.

Early this year, he proposed a revision of immigration law that would have expanded the ranks of legal immigrant workers -- a move popular with Latino voters Bush is courting in this year’s campaign, but controversial among GOP conservatives. To the disappointment of his allies on the issue, the White House has done little to move the initiative through Congress.

When the Senate this summer debated a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, conservative backers were pleased that Bush was on their side. But the proposal fell far short of passage, and some conservatives complained that he did too little to push it.

Analysts say Bush’s uncompromising stance on some issues and his more flexible approach on others is in keeping with a long-standing feature of his leadership style: his tendency to latch on to a handful of goals and pour his political capital into them. But that also has meant that some matters go unattended, such as the passage of a major corporate tax bill.

Inaction on the bill -- to replace an export tax credit that has been ruled illegal -- threatens to cost the U.S. $4 billion in trade sanctions imposed by the European Union.

“The president has a group of things he considers critically important that he pays a great deal of attention to,” said David Hoppe, a former senior Senate Republican leadership aide. “They are not really worried about other issues, and let them go on the back burner.”


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Behind Bush


President Bush prizes loyalty and discretion among his advisors. His inner circle includes veteran strategists and longtime friends.

Karen Hughes

Age: 47

Orchestrates Bush’s campaign themes and messages. A former television reporter, she served as White House communications director for the administration’s first two years, then resigned to return to her home in Austin. Returned full time to the campaign staff in August.

Karl Rove

Age: 53

White House political director. Since joining Bush’s 1994 gubernatorial campaign, he has served as his chief political strategist. Known for his toughness, political acumen and mastery of detail.

Mark McKinnon

Age: 49

The reelection campaign’s media and advertising guru. A onetime Democrat, he worked as communications director for former Texas Gov. Ann Richards. A longtime Bush jogging partner.

Ken Mehlman

Age: 38

Campaign manager. Mentored by Rove, he oversees the campaign’s daily operations. Formerly director of White House political affairs.


Matthew Dowd

Age: 43

Chief campaign strategist. Another former Democrat, he conducts Bush’s polling.

Mercer Reynolds

Age: 59

Finance director for the reelection campaign. A Cincinnati businessman, he was appointed ambassador to Switzerland after becoming a “pioneer” in the 2000 campaign, meaning he raised at least $100,000 for Bush.

Clay Johnson III

Age: 58

Deputy director for management of the Office of Management and Budget. A fellow Texan, he was a classmate of Bush’s at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and at Yale. Has served on Bush’s gubernatorial and presidential staffs.

Los Angeles Times