Five months into his term, George W. Bush has reason to believe his presidency is off to a strong start. The initial rollout of his administration was skillfully choreographed and widely heralded. He routed his opponents, achieving his major legislative objective—a large tax cut—in record time. He aggressively promoted his proposal for national missile defense, producing some degree of acceptance among skeptics abroad. And he allowed Congress to shape an education bill for which he’ll claim authorship and credit, burnishing his reputation as a “compassionate conservative.”
Not bad for a president who lost the popular vote, narrowly won a disputed Electoral College victory thanks to the Supreme Court, and faces a sharply divided Congress.
But few in the White House are celebrating. Bush won his tax cut, but lost the Senate. Recent polls confirm the president’s tepid public standing, resistance to his policy agenda, concern about the corporate interests he favors and doubts about his leadership ability. The expected political momentum from his early legislative victories is nowhere in sight.
After the defection of Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, moderate Republicans are increasingly uneasy about the administration’s direction. Democrats have regained advantage as the party most trusted to deal with the public’s most important problems. A difficult round of Congress battles lies ahead.
Why the disjuncture between Bush’s strong start and current political standing? A sputtering economy and a declining stock market are partly responsible. As is the inherent difficulty of carrying into governing the strategy Bush followed in the campaign: advancing conservative policies popular with his base, while using selective issues (e.g. education) and the rhetoric of bipartisanship to suggest a more moderate approach to policy and governance.
This difficulty is exacerbated by the extraordinary circumstances of the 2000 election and the razor-thin Republican majorities on Capitol Hill. Drawing on what he perceives to be the fatal political mistakes of his father, George W. Bush rejected any notion of a caretaker administration. Instead, he advanced a bold political plan to sell a Reagan-style agenda (without Reagan’s election mandate) employing Clintonian rhetoric (without Clinton’s moderate policy views) to a public that in 2001 (unlike 1981) isn’t seeking significant policy change.
How should the new administration proceed? How about the permanent campaign? Although in his Feb. 15, 2001, speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Vice President Dick Cheney proclaimed that “the days of the war room and the permanent campaign are over,” the opposite is true. The Bush team has absorbed the lessons of Bill Clinton, the master of governing-by-campaigning. This administration has waged a classic permanent campaign.
Bush’s extensive and well-staged travels make Clinton look like a stay-at-home president. Soothing rhetoric and symbolic appearances are routinely used to soften the thrust of Bush’s policies, from tax cuts to energy development. A questionable budget plan was promoted. Hardball partisan tactics in Congress are disguised with well-publicized bipartisan meetings in the White House. Policy initiatives and political outreach are framed to build political support every day. The strategy is to mobilize the conservative base while disarming a skeptical, centrist public.
This permanent campaign, while producing some initial victories, comes at a high price. The tax bill has justly earned its reputation as one of the worst pieces of legislation to emerge from Congress in decades. Years of effort will be required to reclaim the revenues needed to support programs favored by both parties, and to prepare responsibly for the retirement of the baby boomers during the next decade.
The debate on national missile defense has become an ideological battleground, not a credible effort to grapple with the numerous technical, diplomatic and budgetary hurdles that must be cleared before any system can be developed and deployed. Serious steps toward strengthening Social Security and Medicare have been set back by the loss of fiscal flexibility.
That’s the nature of governing through a permanent campaign. Instead of promoting honest talk and building consent, it seeks to manipulate evanescent public opinion through political marketing. Rather than encouraging a deliberative process and a quality product, it elevates the political contest above all else.
Now the costs are extending beyond process and policy to the president’s political standing. The increasingly transparent contrast between words and deeds—the environment, the beneficiaries of tax cuts and energy development, dealing with our allies, and working with Congress—has led a growing segment of the public to believe they are not getting the presidency they thought they, however tentatively, had bought.
Mann is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Distributed by KRT News Service.