Jewish World Review July 30, 2001 / 10 Menachem-Av, 5761

Jules Witcover

Jules Witcover
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Consumer Reports

Where is the fear factor? -- THE refusal of enough House Republicans to support the version of a patients' bill of rights President Bush says he wants is only the latest evidence that something is missing in his dealings with his own party colleagues.

What appears to be missing is fear - fear of what he can, and just might, do to them if they don't deliver him legislation that provides the protection for HMOs against what he considers excessive litigation by dissatisfied patients.

His early charm crusade that worked for his deep tax cut proposal and his education reform initiative appears to have lost its effectiveness with Republican moderates who are now showing no reluctance to stand up to him. The spectacle of 19 of them bucking him and House Speaker Dennis Hastert on campaign finance reform is becoming routine on other matters as well.

One predecessor in the Oval Office, Lyndon Johnson, also tried charm to get his way with Congress, and his long experience on Capitol Hill as a congressman and eventually Senate majority leader enabled him to achieve much success with it. But when that didn't work, LBJ never hesitated to twist arms until they almost fell off, and to work himself into a lather - or appear to - to intimidate the unpersuaded.

Fear was Lyndon's co-pilot when the occasion warranted. Recalcitrant Democrats were, as the "My Fair Lady" lyric put it, equally as willing for a dentist to be drilling as to ever have to face him when his ire was up. Even his hand-picked vice president, Hubert Humphrey, admitted to quaking in his boots before a displeased Johnson. But who fears Dubya?

Visitors to the Oval Office often acknowledge that there is something awesome about just sitting there listening to the president of the United States behind that big desk asking you to do something for him. The cliché is that you can't say no to a president if he wants something, but the moderate Republicans who have been parading in there to hear Bush's pitch don't seem to have much trouble saying it.

Bush's public-approval ratings, after a brief honeymoon, are nothing to write home about, and his claims of having a mandate for his agenda ring hollow in light of the fact that he lost the popular vote by more than half a million votes last fall. Members of Congress already thinking about having to face the voters again next year don't see Bush coattails to grab onto right now.

Other presidents with charm, it's true, have functioned effectively without instilling fear. Bush's hero, Ronald Reagan, did so, sustained by strong public appeal and genuine affection from his congressional colleagues. So did Bill Clinton, without that affection, though he did engage in a soft intimidation of his own by virtue of his superior knowledge on issues before Congress. He was not one to mess with when it came to intellectual combat.

But doubts continue about the degree of Bush's engagement in the grimy details of legislating and governing, including his willingness to burn midnight oil to command the respect of those he wants to persuade to his point of view on aspects of his agenda. Winks, nods, backslaps and cute nicknames can go only so far.

Nor in foreign policy has Bush's charm offensive toward foreign leaders prevented them from ignoring his rejection of the Kyoto treaty on global warming and going ahead without him. They have also made clear they want no part of his unilateral plan to junk the anti-ballistic missile treaty, which they regard as essential to their own protection. Russian president Vladimir Putin's agreement to "consider" adjustments, despite the Bush administration's characterization of it as progress, seems essentially a gesture to put the whole matter on ice.

Maybe it is not in Bush's nature to muscle his adversaries. He has talked much about his belief that sweet reasonableness can prevail if asserted with a "good and willing heart." But the willingness of Republican moderates to follow their own hearts - and minds - suggests more trouble ahead for a president who talks softly and carries a small stick.

Comment on JWR contributor Jules Witcover's column by clicking here.

07/26/01: Dubya, Nancy Reagan and the Pope
07/23/01: Bush's congressional dilemma
07/19/01: Katharine Graham, giant
07/11/01: Finessing election reform
07/09/01: Listening to, and watching, Ashcroft
07/06/01: New comedian in the House (of Representatives)
06/27/01: Spinning Campaign Finance Reform's latest 'headway'
06/25/01: When Dubya says 'the check is in the mail,' you can believe him
06/22/01: The push on patients' rights
06/20/01: If you can't trust historians, how can you trust history?
06/18/01: World Refugee Day
06/13/01: Remembering 'Hubert'
06/11/01: Ventura faces government shutdown
06/06/01: McCain doth protest too much
06/04/01: Memo to the Bush daughters
05/30/01: Missing in action: Democratic outrage
05/30/01: Honoring World War II vets
05/23/01: Lauding the Nixon pardon
05/21/01: Messin' with McCain
05/18/01: A great movie plot
05/16/01: The level of public sensibility these days
05/14/01: "I am Al Gore. I used to be the next president of the United States"

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