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Jewish World Review August 7, 2001 / 18 Menachem-Av, 5761

Fred Barnes

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The new conventional political wisdom -- FOR months, the most cherished notion of Democrats, the media, liberal interest groups, and the permanent Beltway establishment has been that President Bush could no longer govern from the right. Vermont senator James Jeffords's noisy defection had shifted the balance of power in Washington away from Bush. His clout on issues big and small would be lost, moderate Republicans on Capitol Hill would bolt, his popularity would plummet-all unless he scooted to the left. Bush stubbornly refused. So what has happened? He's regained control of a good chunk of the national agenda, the moderate revolt fizzled, and his popularity is rising. Now there's a new conventional wisdom: Bush isn't a political cripple, after all.

There shouldn't have been serious doubt about his ability to govern in the first place. Even when Democrats grabbed the Senate in May, Bush and his allies kept control of two-thirds of the governing process, the House and the White House. "That's not nothing," says Republican strategist Jeffrey Bell. President Clinton held his own for six years with only one-third. By using his presidency and the House effectively, Bush has produced a string of congressional victories this summer: a faith-based initiative, a ban on cloning, an energy bill that includes oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR), and a patients' bill of rights. Yes, as the surplus shrinks, there are troubles ahead on spending bills, taxes, defense, Medicare, and Social Security reform. But because the balance of power still works to Bush's advantage-and to Democrats' disadvantage-he is still much more likely to prevail.

The fallback argument of Bush's foes is that victories in the House have little impact. Nope, they have great impact. Passage of a Bush-endorsed patients' bill of rights has now cast Democrats as the chief obstacle to a signing ceremony in the Rose Garden. Will they compromise in a Senate-House conference to get a bill to Bush? They insist they won't. But their intransigence has already backfired once. The bipartisan group of three senators and three House members who've crusaded for a patients' bill refused to consider a deal acceptable to Bush. This appeared to make a presidential veto inevitable. Fearing the opportunity for closure on the issue would be lost, one of the group's members, GOP representative Charlie Norwood of Georgia, reached his own deal with Bush.

The truth is actions by the House are rarely ignored by the Senate. Soon after a weakened version of Bush's faith-based initiative cleared the House, Democratic senator Joe Lieberman went to the White House to discuss with Bush how to get a bill through the Senate. The day after House passage of a cloning ban, Senate majority leader Tom Daschle faced press questions about his own view on human cloning (he's opposed). And once the energy bill got House approval, Democrats began mobilizing in the Senate to thwart it. Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and Lieberman vowed to filibuster any attempt to match the House's okay of oil drilling in the Alaska reserve. Fine, and their announcement shows once more that when the House puts the Senate on notice, the Senate reacts.

This summer, Bush and his allies have learned a few lessons about Washington. One is that a division of labor often works. House speaker Denny Hastert and whip Tom DeLay pushed the energy bill with practically no White House involvement. They recruited the Teamsters and construction unions to help get Democratic votes on ANWR drilling. This produced 38 votes, more than enough to win, says deputy whip Roy Blunt. And winning was critical because, says Blunt, "the energy bill without ANWR would not have been seen as a victory for the president."

Bush and his aides took responsibility for the patients' bill of rights. The president got credit for lining up Norwood. But, in fact, Norwood lined up Bush. Norwood, an ex-dentist, admires Bush enormously. He was the first major Georgia Republican to endorse Bush for president and traveled with him several times in the campaign. Norwood found negotiations with Bush aide Josh Bolten to be frustrating, but after he sat down with Bush in the Oval Office last week, a deal was quickly struck. It was Norwood's list of suggested compromises that he and Bush discussed. When Bush agreed to them, they rushed to the White House press room to announce the deal.

Another lesson is that so-called bipartisan compromises are often a trap. The genius of the Senate-passed patients' bill of rights was supposed to be its support by both Democrats and Republicans, from Senator Ted Kennedy on the left to Norwood on the right. But as with bipartisan campaign finance reform, liberals were the dominant influence. Norwood began warming to a compromise with Bush when he realized at least three of the six members of the pro-patients' bill group were happy to have Bush veto the bill. He discovered Democrats are eager for bipartisanship so long as it means support for liberal legislation. But they claim it isn't bipartisanship if the legislation is conservative, such as when Bush got a dozen Democratic senators to vote for his tax cut.

There's also the lesson of Republican moderates: Their revolts always fall apart. Their problem is generic. Most live by their wits in House districts that aren't congenial to Republicans. That they have few deep convictions makes it easier for them to adjust. But they're constantly reacting to pressure-from constituents, from the media, from their party. On important votes, the greatest pressure comes from the White House and GOP House leaders. They've held together against their party leaders on only one vote this year, the rule for taking up campaign finance reform on the House floor. And by blocking that rule, they killed their own bill.

Finally, there's the veto lesson. Bush has been wary of threatening a veto. On the advice of Nick Calio, his congressional lobbyist, and adviser Karl Rove-and against the wishes of communications director Karen Hughes-he vowed to veto the Senate version of patients' rights legislation. Norwood, among others, came to believe him, thus setting in motion the talks that led to a deal. A veto threat worked again last week when Senate Democrats backed away from tacking $2 billion on the emergency farm bill. It may work if Bush follows his aides' urging and promises to veto a transportation bill that unfairly limits Mexican trucks in this country. Anyway, Bush has found the veto, or at least the threat, is a tool worth utilizing.

Had Bush and company been paying attention to the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, they'd have learned about another source of Bush's strength. Democratic pollster Mark Penn, speaking to a DLC gathering in Indianapolis in July, called it a "values shield." It comes from the president's being honorable and decent, a nice guy, and it shows up in polls. Bush is preferred over Democrats by 42 percentage points on "sharing your values," by 30 on honesty, and 21 on standing up for what he believes. The shield protects him from Democratic attacks on substantive issues, Penn said. It also means that even on his worst day, he's got more clout than anyone else in Washington.

Fred Barnes is Executive editor at the Weekly Standard. Comment by clicking here.


07/31/01: The crusade for a patients' bill of rights has one big problem: patients

© 2001 The Weekly Standard