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Bush’s Bumpy Ride with the Hill

In his thoughtful analysis of the Bush presidency’s shortcomings Rich Lowry identifies two mistakes regarding Congress:

Not getting congressional buy-in on detention policy immediately after 9/11. Going to Congress would have forced more deliberation when the administration was rushing into the hasty improvisation of Gitmo and made it harder for Democrats to grandstand once it became controversial.

.   .   .

Too much accommodation of a GOP Congress. Bush got what he wanted out of Congress at the price of looking the other way from burgeoning earmarks and a creeping culture of corruption. More triangulation at the expense of his own party’s leaders would have served Bush — and perhaps the ill-fated GOP majority — well.

At first blush this might seem odd–could the President have accommodated Congress both too little and too much? There is an argument to be made that this was precisely the problem, and perhaps the second error stemmed from the first.

For reasons which might have seemed more understandable as events were unfolding in real time, the White House chose to go at it alone on a range of national-security issues — from detention to surveillance. One could imagine that providing a detailed explanation of highly classified material and undertaking tedious negotiations with the likes of Sen. Jay Rockefeller would not be high on anyone’s list of preferred activities. But by providing minimal information and by unilaterally crafting policy by executive order, the White House created institutional as well as ideological grounds for Congress to oppose its actions.

Would Congress really have impeded the President in the days and weeks after 9-11 (and before the Iraq War went haywire)? It is hard to say. And although both President Bush and Vice President Cheney take pride in leaving the presidency “stronger than when they found it,” one suspects the over-correction envisioned by the Obama team will leave the executive branch the net loser.

And what about the domestic agenda and Congress? Perhaps the President didn’t have the nerve or the energy to tangle with Congress on domestic-spending issues while depending on the fraying support of Republicans and a few stray Democrats to back the war on terror. If domestic spending was the price to be paid for keeping Congress from a full revolt, that might have seemed a reasonable trade-off for the President.

But beyond that, the domestic agenda and Congressional relations suffered, I think, from a failure to reasonably assess what was doable. Social Security reform (at least of the type which the President favored) was not, and the effort needlessly tried the patience of Republicans, unified Democrats, and diminished the President’s political capital. Immigration might have been doable, but not in 2005, and not in such an unwieldy form which would have left even immigration supporters confused and distressed about the bill’s specifics.

As Pete has cautioned, outsiders have the luxury to criticize without the benefit of complete knowledge and with the advantage of hindsight. But the lessons are there to be learned by the incoming administration. If you get Congressional buy-in, Congress will be there to cushion the blow when things go wrong (or at least they may self-censor to a degree). And if you figure out what is doable — as opposed to what will just be one big, messy, unproductive fight — you’ll actually get some of your agenda through. All of this is easier said than done, but the lessons are nevertheless worthy of consideration.


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