latimes.com: Bush can avoid Clinton's early missteps
WASHINGTON (Los Angeles Times) -- As he completes his first tour through the capital, President-elect George W. Bush is confronting a political choice remarkably similar to the one Bill Clinton faced after his election in 1992.
The course Bush chooses may determine whether he risks repeating the disaster of Clinton's first months in office or manages a smoother start. And so far, despite all the talk of bipartisanship, some analysts say he may be repeating one of Clinton's key mistakes by targeting his legislative agenda more toward his core supporters than toward centrists.
Like Clinton eight years ago, Bush faces the overarching political dilemma of broadening his support after a narrow victory. And, like Clinton, Bush must navigate between his own campaign promises of bipartisanship and a congressional leadership dubious of too many compromises with the other side.
These common problems leave Bush facing the same fateful strategic decision Clinton confronted: Whether to try to build congressional majorities primarily by unifying his party or risk alienating his most ideological backers by pursuing compromises with the other side.
In his first months, Clinton chose the former strategy with disastrous results: He designed his key legislative proposals in ways that maximized their appeal to Democrats, especially the party's liberal wing, but ignited intense conflict with Republicans. The resulting firestorms polarized the electorate, drove down Clinton's approval rating faster than any new president in the history of polling and contributed to the GOP landslide in the 1994 midterm election.
No hint offered on compromise
Some analysts see signs that Bush may be steering toward similar problems. Though he's emphasized a bipartisan style--pledging repeatedly to reach across party lines--Bush has offered no hint of policy compromise on any of the major issues he ran on, from taxes to missile defense. As Vice President-elect Dick Cheney put it last weekend: "The suggestion that somehow, because this was a close election, we should fundamentally change our beliefs, I just think is silly."
But Democrats--who hold far more seats in Congress today than Republicans did when Clinton took office--are warning Bush that if he pursues an agenda aimed primarily at his own party, he will ignite conflicts that could not only threaten his proposals but also undermine his overriding promise to "change the tone in Washington."
"If there was any pledge that won Bush the election, it was this idea that 'I'm a uniter, not a divider,' " said Bill Galston, a former domestic policy aide to Clinton. If Bush instead advances an agenda that sparks sharp discord with Democrats, Galston argued, "then you have failed to redeem your own pledge."
If anything, Bush arrives with a weaker political hand than Clinton did. In 1992, Clinton won only 43% of the vote in a three-way race with Bush's father and independent Ross Perot--a showing that led then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole to pugnaciously declare that he intended to represent the interests of the majority of Americans who did not vote for Clinton.
But Clinton, at least, easily won the popular vote over the elder Bush and captured 370 electoral votes; the younger Bush lost the popular vote and garnered just 271 electoral votes.
Most important, Clinton arrived with his party holding much larger majorities in Congress: In 1993, Democrats held 258 House seats, compared with just the 221 that Republicans will have in the new Congress. In the Senate, Democrats held a 57-43 majority, compared with the 50-50 split today.
Democratic congressional leaders--touting the large majorities they had--convinced Clinton to shape his initial proposals in a way that maximized their appeal to the party and placed less emphasis on attracting Republican moderates.
Confrontations and miscalculations
That strategy triggered a series of confrontations and miscalculations--from the drafting of a deficit-reduction plan that did not attract a single GOP vote in either chamber to the construction of an overly ambitious health care plan and the decision to defer the fight for welfare reform, a top Clinton campaign promise that divided the Democratic caucus.
In that maelstrom, Clinton saw his approval rating plummet and the Democrats suffer a resounding defeat in 1994 that gave the GOP control of both chambers of Congress.
That history frames the choice facing Bush. Like Clinton in 1993, Bush must decide whether to consolidate his political base by aiming his agenda primarily at his own party or to try to expand his base with compromises on issues like taxes and education that could broaden his appeal to the centrist voters who resisted him in November's vote.
Bush hasn't firmly signaled how he intends to shape his agenda. But he's sent out two distinct signals.
On the one hand, he's repeatedly pledged to pursue bipartisan cooperation. After visiting with Democratic congressional leaders earlier this week, for instance, Bush is summoning senators from both parties to Austin, Texas, for a Thursday working lunch on education policy, sources said.
On the other, neither Bush nor his advisors have shown any willingness to compromise on any of his key campaign proposals--several of which inspire intense opposition among Democrats.
The Bush camp has insisted it intends to push forward with his call for a sweeping $1.3-trillion tax cut, his plan to provide vouchers to parents of children in failing schools and his proposal to deploy a nationwide missile defense system. All of those ideas have minimal Democratic support.
Marshall Wittmann, an analyst at the conservative Hudson Institute think tank, said Bush's steadfast defense of his agenda, particularly the tax cut, has "heartened" conservatives already grumbling about the prominence of moderates in the president-elect's first round of appointees. Bush, he predicted, will inevitably compromise more than he's suggesting now but may envision a strategy of appealing to the GOP base with purist positions in the House before making concessions in the Senate.
Still, early signs are that Bush and congressional Democrats face a threshold problem in pursuing bipartisanship: The two sides seem to have very different definitions of what it means.
Both Bush and Cheney have suggested they are inclined toward a strategy that attempts to first maximize support among Republicans and only then looks to peel away enough conservative Democrats to build a legislative majority. As Cheney put it Sunday, in formulating the administration's policy agenda, "I think what we'll do is start with our base."
Key roadblock remains in Senate
Democrats, though, insist that approach is doomed to failure. Though Bush could conceivably push his agenda through the House that way, there are simply not enough conservative Democrats in the Senate to provide Bush the 60 votes he will need to break a filibuster.
As a result, Democratic congressional leaders maintain that Bush's best hope of success in this narrowly divided Congress is to seek coalitions that maximize support among moderates in both parties, even at the expense of alienating the most ideological members on each side.
Republican congressional leaders almost universally prefer the base-first strategy because it minimizes conflict among their members. But Democrats who watched similar arguments from their party's congressional leaders lead Clinton into the ditch during his first term say that Bush could face even greater risks if he focuses primarily on pleasing his core supporters.
"We should have proceeded in a different way," said Stanley B. Greenberg, who conducted polls for Clinton in 1992 and Gore this year. "But Bush is even in a weaker position to do it because he's dealing with an absolutely evenly divided Congress, and he has no mandate of his own because more people voted against him than for him in the election."