Commentary Magazine


Back to Politics as Usual?

A front-page item in the New York Times last September reported that congressional Republican leaders were already in a panic about the November 2002 mid-term elections. It seems a Republican strategy meeting attended by a senior adviser to the President had quickly descended into “a gripe session about Mr. Bush’s passivity during his month-long [summer] vacation.” A nationwide survey presented at the meeting showed that Republicans were losing support and voters believed the country to be on the wrong track.

Other events occurred on the day the news story appeared—September 11—to ensure that it never received attention, and much happened in the weeks immediately following that would render it irrelevant. Today, just over a year into George W. Bush’s presidency and four months after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, much of the anxiety it ascribed to GOP leaders has evaporated. Not only the President but the Republican party is enjoying broad, even exuberant, public support. According to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll published in mid-January, more Americans believe that the country would be better off if the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, and more trust Republicans with the budget, the economy, and the military. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found seven out of ten Americans believing that the nation is headed in the right direction. After the President’s State of the Union address on January 29, the numbers only went up.

None of this needs explanation, but the more important question is whether it can last. Most observers have doubted it. For one thing, they point out, Bush’s personal popularity—running over 80 percent in most surveys—is not being translated into new support for traditional GOP issues like tax cuts or school vouchers. For another, some of the policies that were put into place after September 11—specifically, increased powers for law-enforcement agencies and a return to deficit spending—strained the fragile GOP coalition itself, alienating both libertarians and anti-big-government conservatives. In the meantime, the war against terrorism has seemed at least momentarily to recede as an all-consuming issue in the public mind while other matters, including the Enron collapse, have come to the fore. “Politics as normal is back,” declared the Economist in early January. “It is as if the attacks and the change in public sentiments never happened.”

Well, time (and the President’s determination) will tell about that. But “politics as normal” is certainly what the Democratic party has been looking to restore, and what was strongly conveyed by Senate majority leader Tom Daschle in January. In a speech billed as a major policy statement, Daschle provided the first glimpse into what may serve as the party’s battle plan for this fall’s elections. In nearly every respect, it sounded exactly like what Daschle and other Democrats had been saying about Republican policy throughout the spring and summer of last year.

Of course, Daschle was effusive in his praise of Bush’s handling of the war against terror. But his real subject was economic policy, and specifically the tax cuts that Bush had signed into law the previous spring. Using the kind of hyperbole normally reserved for speeches on the Senate floor, Daschle thundered that these cuts had led to “the most dramatic fiscal deterioration in our nation’s history”—he was referring to the current economic recession, which in point of fact had officially begun long before enactment of the cuts—and were chiefly responsible for our disappearing budget surplus. While Daschle himself did not go so far as to call for repeal of the tax cuts—after all, fully a dozen of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate had voted for them—his colleague Edward M. Kennedy, in another speech a week later, urged postponing large parts of them, echoing Daschle’s faulty logic that “unaffordable tax cuts . . . lead to growing federal deficits.”

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Whether, come November, the debate over the tax cuts will prove a decisive issue is highly questionable. The Washington Post described the Republican reaction to the two speeches as “gleeful”; White House spokesman Ari Fleischer suggested that the Democratic leadership “aches in its bones to raise taxes,” insinuating that Republicans ached in their bones for Democrats to embrace the issue. And this nicely evokes the present Democratic dilemma: in a mid-term election year, with the economy faltering, the party out of power should be a looming threat, war or no war. (Indeed, in most mid-term elections in the 20th century, the party in power in the White House typically lost almost as many House and Senate seats in wartime as in peacetime.) But it is not at all clear how the Democratic party will be able to capitalize on this trend.

Rather than offering a distinct or fresh path for legislation, Daschle and others seem wedded to tired Democratic themes: expanded government payments for the unemployed; financial assistance for “displaced workers” laid off as a result of international trade agreements; tax credits for selected industries; “lifelong” federal training programs; and an expansion of the already financially unsustainable Medicare program without any structural reform. Nor do the Democrats seem to have much waiting in the wings. The “Patients’ Bill of Rights,” the source of so much legislative energy and political posturing last summer, appeared to be thoroughly forgotten until the President himself mentioned it in his State of the Union address. An education bill that was the alleged cause of Senator James Jeffords’s defection from the Republicans was signed by the President in due course and is unlikely to be revisited. Even the Democrats’ call for more federal spending on homeland security has been undercut by the squeamishness of many prominent Democrats themselves when confronted with Attorney General John Ashcroft’s proposals to enhance the power of law enforcement against suspected terrorists.

The Democrats have also lost the foreign-policy card. Bush’s inexperience in foreign affairs, together with his “cowboy-style” unilateralism, had provided a rich field for partisan sniping in the months before September 11. The President’s controversial refusal to endorse the Kyoto treaty on global warming, his insistence on increases in defense spending, his uncompromising commitment to strategic missile defense—all these led Democrats to think they might have a competitive advantage in foreign policy. No more.

Finally, conspicuously absent in current rhetoric is the “new Democrat” theme that breezed fitfully through the Democratic caucus during the Clinton years, with its emphasis on reforming government entitlements and experimenting with private-sector solutions. Why it should be absent is not altogether clear—perhaps it smacks too much of Clinton himself for comfort—yet the fact is that Daschle’s speech openly distanced itself from “New Democrat” ideas and attitudes, in the end preferring no unifying agenda to a possibly risky one. The same general skittishness may well be what prompted other Democrats to leap on the Enron story as if it were political gold.

To be sure, the financial collapse of the energy company and the apparent criminal deceit of its executives and auditors were richly deserving of congressional scrutiny. Too, in its generosity to political candidates, Enron had heavily favored Republicans, and had championed the deregulatory and free-market agenda that was closely identified with the Republican party; Kenneth Lay, its chairman, enjoyed close ties with senior members of the administration, including the President. Even though no evidence surfaced of public corruption—as was well known, the administration did nothing to help Enron, despite desperate last-minute pleas—Democrats could hardly restrain themselves from cranking up the Washington scandal machine. On January 14, a Washington Post interviewer quoted an unnamed Democratic strategist:

Democrats are very excited about this because this gives us a hook to bring this guy [President Bush] some accountability, plus there’s no way it’s not going to be a distraction for them. Privately, Democrats are almost unanimous in seeing this as a significant political opportunity.

By late January, no fewer than five separate Senate committees were holding hearings on the collapsed company, and the Democratic strategist James Carville was circulating a memo predicting hopefully that the Enron scandal “has the potential to shape the entire political environment for 2002.”

Once again, however, the question arises as to whether, and for how long, this will continue to fly politically. The basic truth remains that in a year during which they might otherwise be poised to recapture the majority in the House and enlarge their one-vote hold over the Senate, the Democrats have had little to offer but a package of well-worn legislative proposals laced, recently, with scandalmongering. Nor are their hopes likely to be buoyed by electoral factors of a narrower kind.

This is a redistricting year—the once-a-decade ritual in which congressional districts are redrawn by state legislatures according to census data—and Democrats were hoping that the addition of new seats would create the possibility of tremendous shifts in the makeup of the House. But as the results of the latest redistricting have emerged, those hopes have begun to fade. Although Democrats need a swing in only six races to take back the leadership of the House, it is not obvious where the half-dozen victories will come from.

In 1992, the last congressional election affected by redistricting, over 100 House seats were considered up for grabs. But this year, in the estimation of Roll Call, the weekly newspaper focused on Congress, fewer than a dozen races may be toss-ups. That could be good news for Republicans, who will be able to concentrate resources in a handful of must-win districts. In the meantime, a different constellation of forces may work to the advantage of the GOP in Senate races, where the margins are also slim. Although the retirement of long-serving Republicans like Phil Gramm (Texas) and Jesse Helms (North Carolina) has opened opportunities for the Democrats, Republicans have recruited strong candidates of their own in these particular states. And in other contested states like New Mexico, Virginia, Kansas, and Oregon, Democrats so far have been unable to field serious challengers against GOP incumbents.

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The democratic dilemma extends beyond congressional politics. Ever since Bill Clinton left office a year ago, having managed in the end to drive away even his most stubborn defenders, the Democrats have struggled in vain to find someone to take his place as a national leader. Despite Daschle’s sometimes shrewd skills in positioning the Senate against the White House, he has never been a towering figure in national politics; nor has he helped lead the party toward any fixed theme. In January, fewer than 40 percent of Americans responding to a USA Today/CNN poll had a favorable impression of the Senate majority leader after several weeks in which he was the object of steady and largely positive media attention.

Elsewhere in the Senate, the pickings are no better. Joseph Lieberman has failed to build on his moment in the limelight as Al Gore’s running mate, and his readiness during the 2000 presidential campaign to abandon once strongly-held positions on school vouchers and private Social-Security accounts robbed him of the moral authority he once enjoyed. John Kerry of Massachusetts is often spoken of as a presidential aspirant, but over the last year he has failed to assert leadership on any issue. John Edwards, a freshman from North Carolina and a wealthy former trial lawyer, is often mentioned as a comer, but it is too soon for him to be tested.

There may, of course, be other contenders, but they are also problematical. Former Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, now president of the New School for Social Research in New York, certainly enjoyed national prominence in his career in Washington and was not afraid to introduce new ideas to the Democratic establishment. But lingering questions about his role in a massacre while serving as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam may have permanently removed him from high-profile electoral politics. Richard Gephardt, the House minority leader, is always mentioned, although he has not really enhanced his national standing during the fourteen years since he last campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination. Among governors, Gray Davis of California, once the most promising and ambitious of Democratic leaders, has been buffeted by the energy debacle and the state’s increasingly uncontrollable budget crisis and is now facing a significant challenge from a Republican field that includes Richard Riordan, the former mayor of Los Angeles.

No one can ever discount the ambitions of Ted Kennedy, whose recent prominence in the tax-cut debate proves that he is still a considerable force within the party. Nor is he the only liberal Democrat with national standing: Senators Hillary Clinton and Jon Corzine have both taken prominent places in the party hierarchy, though neither one of them is likely presidential timber. Still, all of these figures are a powerful reminder of persistent divisions between the party’s centrist and liberal factions, divisions that were evidenced vividly during the 2000 election in the candidacies of Bill Bradley and the spoiler Ralph Nader—and that are every bit as fractious as analogous splits in the GOP.

And what, finally, about Al Gore? Having made only rare appearances since President Bush took office, he is in some sense a fresh face (if one with a beard). There is no doubt that Gore remains both the most widely known Democratic politician and the most seasoned national campaigner. A Gore-Bush contest in 2004, given the statistically tied results of the last contest, would have the potential drama of a rematch, the first in presidential politics since Adlai Stephenson’s second run against Dwight D. Eisenhower 45 years ago. But it would also be the third time that Gore has sought the presidency and his fourth time on a national ticket—another sign of the thinness of the Democratic field.

Of course, it is impossible so early in the game to predict anything at all about the next presidential contest. But surely something is awry in a party in which, as of today, the only figure actively putting together a 2004 campaign is Al Sharpton.

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None of which means, however, that the Republicans are in for a free ride in November; far from it. Nationwide, the balance of power remains evenly divided between the parties, and when it comes to agenda-setting, the GOP can often seem, and be, as clueless as the Democrats.

It now seems clear that, the current resurgence of GOP popularity notwithstanding, the brash and confident Republicanism that gripped the Congress through the 1990′s is a thing of the past, the Contract with America a dim memory. Privatizing Social Security, overhauling the tort-law system to diminish the strength of trial lawyers, promoting school vouchers, dismantling the machinery of affirmative action in federal hiring—these are simply no longer part of the national political debate. A combination of war, recession, and a President who never fully shared the reformist zeal of the “Republican revolution” has tabled the party’s more ambitious agenda.

Contributing to the shift is the fact that Republican leadership, in Congress and across the country, is also undergoing change. Not only Senator Phil Gramm but House Majority Leader Richard Armey, another Texan who has stubbornly promoted free-market ideas, is due to retire at the end of this year. With the departure of Jesse Helms, the party will lose its most vigorous and controversial champion of a conservative cultural agenda. And similar changes are due to occur or have already occurred at the gubernatorial level. Two erstwhile Republican strongholds, New Jersey and Virginia, were sites of Democratic gubernatorial victories in November 2000. Wisconsin and Michigan, both of them centers of activist Republican reform for over a decade, are likely to move into the Democratic column this fall.

That leaves the future of Republican politics—and thus the entire question of whether we are back to “politics as normal”—in the hands of the President. While Bush’s handling of the war in Afghanistan clearly united his party, and has just as clearly won him huge support in the country at large, what remains to be seen is whether he can take advantage of the moment and of his extraordinary popularity to reshape the bitterly fractured political climate that confronted him when he took the oath of office just over a year ago.

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At that time, it was widely predicted that Bush would be utterly incapable of governing, or that in order to do so he would have to make significant concessions to the Democrats—creating, in effect, a government of national unity. The reality turned out to be more complicated, and more paradoxical. To the dismay of his critics, Bush proceeded to pursue many of the contentious issues he had campaigned on. In doing so he won a few battles (notably tax cuts and fast-track authority to negotiate trade agreements) and lost a few, but he stuck to his principles on everything from faith-based initiatives to missile defense to the Kyoto and germ-warfare treaties to stem-cell research.

But much of his first six months was also taken up with something else: namely, prolonged, demoralizing negotiations with Congress on education, health care, and trade. On these fronts, the country saw not a determined President battling for a distinctive agenda of his own but a White House interested above all in avoiding the appearance of gridlock. And here a deep irony made itself felt: for all Bush’s talk about bringing a new spirit of compromise to Washington, it was in pursuit of bipartisanship that he most undermined both his own cause and the cause of bipartisanship alike.

The education bill, which Bush considered one of his highest priorities, quickly became a vehicle for testing the new spirit of compromise, and the new spirit of compromise just as quickly took priority over substance. School vouchers, which Bush had defended throughout his campaign, were the first item to be taken off the table, followed by a diluting of the administration’s carefully crafted requirements for annual testing. These compromises were accompanied by an enormous increase in federal spending unlinked to improved school performance. The result was a 1,000-page bill, signed into law this past January, that, at best, could but modestly improve educational achievement and/or accountability.

As policy, the bill was admittedly better than nothing. But as a political matter it was a disaster. The “No Child Left Behind Act,” as it became known, was intended to be a showpiece of Bush’s willingness to work with Democrats. Ironically, it was precisely this legislation that created the greatest division in Washington. In the midst of negotiations over the bill, a disgruntled James Jeffords switched his party affiliation from Republican to Independent, returning control of the Senate to the Democrats for the first time in six years and ending the pretense that personal charm and bipartisan backslapping could overcome traditional enmities. Henceforth, and except for the legislation passed in the immediate wake of September 11, Congress would remain impervious to the new spirit of compromise touted by the President.

The Jeffords defection also had a deleterious effect on the Bush White House. No longer confident that they could successfully steer their agenda through Congress, the President’s men, in league with some (though not all) House and Senate Republicans, now immersed themselves in issues that were the priorities not of their own party but of the Democrats. The best example was the “Patients’ Bill of Rights,” which suddenly emerged as the most pressing piece of legislation in Washington.

This bill, which had been floating around the Capitol almost since the defeat of the Clinton health-care package in 1994, was ostensibly aimed at allowing patients to demand a greater level of service from health-management organizations (HMO’s), the primary providers of managed health-care services. In practice, it was a means of expanding the portfolio of trial attorneys desirous of ending the general immunity of HMO’s from civil litigation. Like similar measures in earlier years, the 2001 version of the bill was accompanied by a multi-million dollar lobbying, polling, and advertising campaign that had the full support of the Democratic leadership.

Last summer, it became evident that the White House wanted to strike a deal. Soon there were rival bills in Congress, one supported by the administration, the other by the Democratic leadership. The differences between the two were largely cosmetic, the key point of contention being whether patients should be allowed to sue their HMO in federal court (the White House position) or in state court, where they could expect larger jury awards (the Democratic position). In either case, it was obvious that the legislation would neither expand insurance coverage for Americans, nor improve the quality of care, nor lower costs—most experts conceded that either version would significantly raise them.

The President’s willingness to engage in this obtuse debate disheartened many of his supporters. What it really suggested was how deeply the White House had been stung by the Jeffords defection. No longer did the President appear determined to set his own course; rather, he seemed prepared to concede whatever was necessary to make himself appealing to his critics. On August 5, at the start of his month-long vacation, the Washington Post reported that the Bush team was working on new ideas to enhance the President’s attractiveness to women voters. Both Bush and his party seemed to be scrambling for an identity.

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So here we now are, post-September 11, at the start of the second year of the Bush presidency, and at the height of the President’s personal popularity. Has the war changed everything, or are we back to “politics as normal”?

The best (and most disturbing) evidence that the war has failed to change the culture of Washington was on display during the negotiation over the “stimulus package” at the very end of 2001, when the White House and the Senate Democratic leadership broke down along familiar lines; neither side prevailed, and, in the end, no legislation passed. Although some thought Bush succeeded in retaining the upper hand, what was most striking about the episode was that the White House had once again allowed itself to be drawn into debating only the terms set by the Democrats. In its final version, the package fell apart not on matters of principle but on the question of whether the President was prepared to spend “enough” on unemployment and health-care benefits for the unemployed—a measure that no economist believed would stimulate the economy in any real sense.

Whether things would continue along this dispiriting path was a question that many hoped would be answered by the President’s State of the Union address. It was answered partially. The main emphasis of the first half of the speech, in which the President focused tightly on “the pursuit of two great objectives”—destroying terrorist camps around the world and preventing terrorists and others from obtaining weapons of mass destruction—was powerful and sensible. As even his critics now admit, Bush dominates the overall foreign-policy agenda with real authority. Nor will his plans either to increase the Pentagon budget significantly or to put considerable resources into domestic security find many dissenters.

The problem came in the second half of the address. The White House is, plainly, haunted by the economic recession—and with good reason. As no one needs to be reminded, the President least of all, in the early 1990′s it was chiefly the depressed economy that ended George H.W. Bush’s soaring popularity after the Gulf war. But neither does the current President Bush have much control over the recession, let alone a solution to offer.

Many of the old Republican remedies for a weak economy—cuts in marginal rates, fewer regulations, generous tax concessions—are simply not in the cards; the budgetary and political climate will not permit them. And so Bush’s message to Congress contained a lengthy list of proposals ostensibly aimed at boosting the economy but more likely intended to counter the charge that he has been neglecting domestic policy. The list itself had its strong points and its weak points, but it left an impression of aimlessness and inattention. Worse, some of the items on it, like the call for an increase in veterans’ health care, new regulations of pension plans, and—yes—a Patients’ Bill of Rights sounded eerily similar to items on the wish list offered by Richard Gephardt in the official Democratic response to the speech. Along with Gephardt’s proposal of a bipartisan “economic growth summit,” the whole exercise took on the look of a recipe for still more protracted and fruitless negotiation over Democratic hobbyhorses.

Perhaps the most salient omission in the State of the Union message was any reference to Bush’s onetime signature theme of “compassionate conservatism.” In the entire 50-minute address there was only a single fleeting reference to the faith-based charity initiative that, a year ago, he had thrust to the forefront of debate. In its place, Bush introduced a new theme—the “culture of responsibility”—which has the virtue of resonance but cries out for definition.

If by “responsibility” Bush means concentrating on the larger tasks at hand—prosecuting the war on terrorism, strengthening domestic security, resisting Democratic efforts to obstruct or undo the tax cuts already passed, and, through such ideas as a national Citizens Corps, energizing the spirit of voluntarism so much on display since September 11—he may indeed have hit upon a formula that can successfully guide the country through the inevitable difficulties at home and abroad in the period ahead. But if “responsibility” becomes a cover for reverting to the pre-September 11 mode of trying to establish consensus with congressional Democrats and pressing for whatever compromise legislation can be gotten, the President may yet end up in the same political quagmire that trapped his father.

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During his first year in office, even apart from September 11 and its immediate aftermath, Bush showed a capacity for impressive acts of leadership and for sticking to his instincts and convictions. Whether in his choice of cabinet members, his determination to ignore the opinion of the “world community” on missile defense and the Kyoto treaty, his insistence on squarely confronting the moral issue in the debate over stem-cell research, or the discreet seriousness and dignity he brought to the White House, Bush conveyed a strong sense of confidence, independence, and executive skill. But he has also shown that he can be tempted into smallbore debates on other people’s turf: into, that is, bipartisan “politics as normal” of the kind that tied up Congress and the White House for much of 2001. For the sake of the country, and if he means to preserve his party’s political fortunes, the path of least resistance is the path that will need to be resisted most.

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About the Author

Daniel Casse is a senior director of the White House Writers Group, a Washington, D.C. communications firm.