Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1. Put on a Compassionate Face
How an Idea Got Bush Elected and Got Him into Trouble
President Bush you'll enjoy this he says he needs a month off to unwind. Unwind? When the hell does this guy wind? Come on!
David Letterman, August 20, 2001
Everything depends on whether he is seen as taking charge when there's something to take charge of. But there is a view of Bush that he's a total lightweight. This makes it an easy shot, so it was a risk for him.
Richard E. Neustadt, author of Presidential Power, quoted in The Washington Post, August 29, 2001, on that long Bush vacation
The day before planes piloted by terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the Pennsylvania countryside, George W. Bush was, if not a failed president, then a floundering leader who had lost the initiative and faced a miserable autumn. David Frum was serving at the time as a White House speechwriter. Frum admitted in The Right Man, a book as friendly to Bush as its title suggests, that he was planning to leave the White House before the events of 9/11 happened because he did not want to watch as the Bush presidency "unraveled."
Bush was in trouble courtesy of a problem that will always plague his presidency: having persuaded many Americans during his campaign that he was moderate in spirit, he governed from the right. His deep, instinctive conservatism and his impatience with moderate Republicans led to the great debacle of his first months in office, the defection of Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont from the Republican Party. On May 24 just four months after Bush took office Jeffords flipped control of the Senate to the Democrats. It was the most important political moment of the Bush presidency before 9/11.
The Jeffords switch was, in retrospect, a logical response to how Bush chose to manage his presidency. After the disputed election of 2000, Bush faced the choice of governing as a moderate and healing the wounds left by the Florida debacle, or governing as an uncompromising conservative and bulling his way to a series of ideological victories. He chose the aggressive strategy. It worked reasonably well until Jeffords decided he had had enough. Jeffords's defection was a rebuke not only to Bush's strategy but also to a conservative movement that assumed for many years that it could trash, ridicule, intimidate, and denounce Republican moderates and still count on their votes at crucial moments.
The strategy had succeeded for at least a decade, and it ultimately succeeded on Bush's big tax cut when most moderates (including Jeffords) fell into line. Because the moderate Republicans rarely rebelled when it mattered, conservatives could overlook the inconvenient fact that without the progressives from the Northeast and Middle West, the Republican majority in Congress would disappear.
The funny thing is that Jeffords did exactly what conservatives, for years, had told him he should do. Over and over, they denounced him as a crypto-Democrat who had no business wearing the Republican label. Even as Jeffords was preparing to leave, conservative leaders and their supporters were saying, "good riddance."
"Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont is not a moderate," declared National Review in an editorial e-mailed around the land. "He is a liberal." The magazine that guards conservative orthodoxy said the party switch "makes it clear that the Republicans are the conservative party and the Democrats are the liberal party." Jeffords's decision, they said, was "a clarifying one."
Indeed it was. Jeffords realized it made no sense to serve in a Republican majority that had made itself the servant of the Bush program when, as Jeffords put it, "I can see more and more instances where I will disagree with the president on very fundamental issues."
The Jeffords defection was played as a breakdown of Bush's much-praised political operation, and that was true enough. Bush's advisers never saw the defection coming, perhaps because they focused so relentlessly on the right wing of the party. But above all, Jeffords's departure marked the failure of Bush's strategy. Once in office, the president acted as if he had won a mandate despite his loss of the popular vote. He assumed he could win on issue after issue by getting votes from Democratic moderates in states he had carried. The president's apparatus figured that pressure, digs, and threats leaked to conservative journalists would keep moderate Democrats and potentially rebellious Republicans in line.
But Republicans from the states carried by Al Gore knew perfectly well that their own voters were in no mood for anything but a middle-of-the-road program from Bush. Jeffords's decision to walk away could thus be seen as the real American majority, moderately progressive in temperament, striking back.
John Grenier, a leader of Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign, said at the time that the central question in Republican politics was: "What are you willing to pay for the South?" Quite a lot, it turned out, and the payoff came in the defection of millions of conservative southern Democrats. They included such Republican senators as Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, Phil Gramm of Texas, and Richard Shelby of Alabama, all of whom lost power in the Senate when Jeffords switched.
The steady "southernization" of Republican politics Bush was part of that trend eventually called forth a reaction in the old Republican bastions of the North. There was a poignant moment when Jeffords announced his switch. He chose to refer to his political ancestors as "Lincoln Republicans." That was a quiet rebel's yell against the new Republican Confederacy.
Jeffords's voluntary departure was, finally, the revenge of Republican moderates and liberals who had been driven from power involuntarily over the years. Distinguished Republicans such as Jacob Javits of New York, Clifford Case of New Jersey, and Thomas Kuchel of California were beaten in Republican primaries. The battle against moderates continued under Bush as conservative groups such as the Club for Growth staged primary challenges against Republican mavericks. The idea was that the offending moderates would be defeated or brought into line.
For a moment, at least, Jeffords brought to life an alternative possibility: that if moderates were attacked often enough, they might just pack up and leave. It was a dreadful portent for Bush's efforts to create a new Republican majority.
From the beginning of Bush's quest for the presidency, both he and his top political adviser Karl Rove understood the delicacy of the situation they confronted. On the one hand, Bush and Rove were determined not to repeat what they saw as the core mistake of the first Bush presidency: the failure to enunciate a vision that appealed to the conservative base of the Republican Party. But they were also determined not to repeat the mistakes Newt Gingrich made during his Republican Revolution after the 1994 election. "Compassionate conservatism" was born out of this tension. It proved to be a brilliant construction. Conservatives already thought they were compassionate and thus, in principle, would not be offended by the adjective, even if some resented that it was needed at all. But moderates heard something very new though that something was far less new than it seemed.
Not repeating his father's errors was an obsession for Bush. When I interviewed George W. Bush for a magazine piece before the 2000 campaign, I asked him about his family's tradition of public service. Bush spoke respectfully of his father and quickly got to the political point.
"Obviously it's a proud tradition," George W. said. Then he immediately identified himself with his brother, Florida governor Jeb Bush and, effectively, against his father. "I believe we have that sense of service, but I believe that we're both driven as well by ideas and philosophy," he said. "That we have come to realize, particularly in our respective roles as governors, how powerful an idea can be. And that it's important to serve but it's also important to achieve results. To set goals, clear and measurable goals, and to lead." As president, Bush was determined to lead to the right.
Yet Bush knew that was not enough. When I asked him what the Republican Party had done wrong since 1994, he had a quick answer. "It hasn't put a compassionate face on our conservative philosophy," he replied. "People think oftentimes that Republicans are mean-spirited folks. Which is not true, but that's what people think." Note that Bush spoke of putting a compassionate face on conservatism. That was not the same as transforming it. On the contrary, Bush seemed to be saying there was nothing wrong with the Republican Party that a different face wouldn't cure and he knew whose face he had in mind.
David Frum, the Bush speechwriter, offered this puckish take on Bush's creed: "Bush described himself as a 'compassionate conservative,' " Frum wrote, "which sounded less like a philosophy than a marketing slogan: Love conservatism but hate arguing about abortion? Try our new compassionate conservatism great ideological taste, now with less controversy."
But whether compassionate conservatism was primarily a philosophy, a marketing slogan, or merely a dodge, it was the product of prodigious work and careful thinking. Bush did the work, but his assignments often came from Rove, whose relationship with his candidate (and president) cannot simply be defined by the words "political adviser."
When Rove first met Bush, he seems to have realized almost immediately that his own skills as a gut fighter, a visionary, and a self-made intellectual were perfectly complemented by Bush's ease with people and his upper-crust connections. ("Bush is the kind of candidate and officeholder political hacks like me wait a lifetime to be associated with," Rove once said.) What Rove has never said publicly at least is that Bush badly needed his boy genius, as Bush called him, on absolutely everything related to the substance of politics: policy, strategy, tactics, and, when necessary, a willingness to execute, without much apparent scruple, whatever political attack was necessary.
"Rove was cerebral; Bush never liked going too deeply into the homework," James C. Moore and Wayne Slater write in their important Rove biography, Bush's Brain. "Rove had an encyclopedic mind and a gift for campaign arithmetic; Bush had engaging people skills, a knack for winning over opponents with pure charm. If Rove approached politics as a blood sport, Bush's instinct was to search out compromise and agreement." If ever a relationship deserved to be called co-dependent, this was it.
But Rove was not simply a tough guy. He was also a political visionary. He could play the low road, but it was in pursuit of a grand dream. Compassionate conservatism was one important plank to be used in a much larger project. Rove's dream was to create a dominant Republican majority for the next two decades or more. And he had a model: the success of turn-of-the-century Republican president William McKinley, who became the master of political fund-raising from the corporate world exactly what Bush would become. McKinley identified with the rising interests of industrial capital, just as Bush identifies with capital's leaders today. Rove sees in the current moment the same epoch-making potential that existed at the time of the election of 1896, when McKinley produced a new Republican majority that endured, with the interruption of the Woodrow Wilson years, until the Great Depression.
Rove argues that McKinley understood that the issues surrounding the Civil War, which had dominated politics for three decades, were no longer relevant to a large and growing segment of the electorate. McKinley also realized that immigration and industrialization had changed the character of the country. If Republicans did not make a bid for the votes of immigrants and the working class generally, they would lose preeminence. Rove, for whom archival research is a hobby, can cite letters McKinley wrote describing the party's problem and meetings he held with immigrant leaders to bring them around to the Republicans' promise of the "full dinner pail."
Rove's analysis represented a sharp break with the popular conservative assumption that all that was required for a Republican victory was to recreate Ronald Reagan's appeal and to reassemble his coalition. The electorate had changed enormously from the time of Reagan's last election. Baby boomers and younger voters were now at its heart. And in 2000, at least, Reagan's best issues were gone. The Cold War was over and hostility to government programs ebbed.
It was not hard to see how Rove would play out the McKinley parallel. Bush's quest for Latino votes a large factor in California, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, and Illinois was directly comparable to McKinley's wooing of the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Italians, and the Irish. Similarly, Bush's minuets on social issues such as abortion and affirmative action and his more general pledge to a compassionate conservatism reflected Rove's sense that creating a durable Republican majority required converting suburban independents and Democrats whose social and moral views are more moderate than conservative.
Rove also liked to quote Napoleon's adage: "The whole art of war consists in a well-reasoned and extremely circumspect defensive, followed by rapid and audacious attack." Compassionate conservatism might be seen as the "well-reasoned and extremely circumspect defensive." The "rapid and audacious attack" was situational. In 2002, as we'll see, it used Iraq and homeland security as its weapons.
Rove seemed to have the Republican coalition and the hope of a larger one built into both his conscious and subconscious minds. He lives and breathes with his potential majority. He always understood, for example, that cultural conservatives would be a linchpin of Bush's constituency, even as he also understood that Republicans would, by conviction and necessity, always be the party of business. "To govern on behalf of the corporate right, they would have to appease the Christian right," write Lou Dubose, Jan Reid, and Carl Cannon in their Rove biography, Boy Genius. "The marriage of the Christian conservatives had to be made to work if the party was to work."
Yet Rove also understood the importance of wooing middle-class voters who were not right-wing. He wrote a memo to Republican governor Bill Clements of Texas in the 1980s that perfectly described the strategy he would later pursue for Bush. He did not expect to get votes from liberal constituencies, but he did want to win over moderates who shared some of the liberals' concerns. "The purpose of saying you gave teachers a record pay increase is to reassure suburban voters with kids, not to win the votes of teachers," Rove wrote to Clements. "Similarly, emphasizing your appointments of women and minorities will not win you the support of feminists and the leaders of the minority community; but it will bolster your support among Republican primary voters and urban independents." Welcome to compassionate conservatism before it was cool.
Bush knew perfectly well how cool the idea could be and how important it was to his advancement. Even though Bush shared the conservatives' anti-government creed, especially where environmental, labor, and business regulation were concerned, he had learned from Gingrich's failures. The former House Speaker's conservatism had clearly been too combative, too devoted to an anti-government rhetoric that could never, in practice, deliver as small a government as it promised. It was also, perhaps, too honest. Bush found a rhetorical style that, at least in principle, made him a friend, not an enemy, of government.
"In this present crisis, government isn't the solution to our problem. Government is the problem," Ronald Reagan had said. George W. Bush has put his case much more modestly. "Government if necessary," Bush said, "but not necessarily government."
"Too often, my party has confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself," Bush declared. He criticized "the destructive mind-set," holding "that if government would only get out of the way, all our problems would be solved."
Here was "a well-reasoned and extremely circumspect defensive." Here, also, was the essence and the paradox of Bushism. By rejecting pure anti-government rhetoric, Bush left himself more room than Reagan had to reduce the size of government. Because Bush was not a government basher, he was given more leeway to limit its scope. Because Bush proclaimed his conservatism as "compassionate," he could pursue conservative goals with more vigor. And after 9/11, because Bush so increased the size of government where defense and homeland security were concerned, his broader anti-government purposes went unnoticed even, until the fiscal picture turned bleak in 2004, among most conservatives.
This rhetorical shift led many to credit Bush with having made his party more moderate. "Bush's Moderate Steps Bring Change to GOP," read a Philadelphia Inquirer headline on a story about a Republican National Committee meeting in Austin on January 20, 2002. "He's taken the hard edge off the party," Bill Cobey, the GOP state chairman in North Carolina, told reporter Steven Thomma.
But Bush was no Rockefeller Republican. He was, in many ways, more conservative than Reagan and that should have been obvious before he became president. Unlike Bush, Reagan never pushed to repeal the inheritance tax, even if he loathed it. Reagan didn't propose a partial privatization of Social Security, even if he saw Social Security as a socialist program. Reagan praised religion, but never contemplated a faith-based initiative.
Paul Weyrich, the president of the Free Congress Foundation and a veteran leader of the right, had qualms about whether Reagan was conservative enough. He definitely had problems with Bush I. But he loved Bush II. In an open letter to the second President Bush in January 2002, Weyrich praised him as "one of the finest men to have ever served as president." Weyrich was speaking for the conservative base, which had been overwhelmingly sympathetic to Bush from the outset. That's because they knew he was one of them. They understood as some moderate voters and many in media did not that Bushism (or in deference to his father, should we call it "W-ism"?) offered the best chance for a new conservative ascendancy.
Since at least the end of World War II, American conservatism has confronted a political and philosophical split between libertarians and traditionalists. The libertarians prize the free market above everything and see human liberty as the highest calling. The traditionalists emphasize community over individualism, values over profits, self-discipline over consumerism. "Conservatism is something more than mere solicitude for tidy incomes," wrote the traditionalist thinker Russell Kirk in 1954. "Economic self-interest is ridiculously inadequate to hold an economic system together, and even less adequate to preserve order."
In the 1950s, William F. Buckley, Jr., then a young editor, and his ally Frank Meyer sought to meld these two strands of conservatism. They created what came to be known as "fusionism." Donald Devine, a political scientist who served in the Reagan administration, has argued that fusionism saw America as, at heart, a conservative nation that would use the freedom libertarians preached in defense of traditional values. Whether fusionism ever worked philosophically, it worked politically by uniting conservatives behind a common cause: beating the liberals at home and the Communists abroad. This is the consensus that nurtured Ronald Reagan. His victory was a triumph of fusionism.
But Reagan's triumph also brought home fusionism's limits. In practice, traditionalists and libertarians still disagreed on many questions. Moreover, after Reagan won and prospered, the liberal enemy came to seem far less fearsome. And the collapse of the Soviet Union robbed conservatives of the anti-Communist solvent that could heal so many wounds and divisions.
George W. Bush made himself the instrument of a new fusionism. Like libertarians, he made tax cuts a central article of his creed. His devotion to business was reflected in his efforts to roll back environmental and labor regulations from the Clinton era and to open federal lands to energy development. Bush was a corporate conservative, and proud of it. But he called himself a compassionate conservative because he, like the traditionalists, understood that most people do not draw meaning from the marketplace alone. Oddly, as we'll see later, Bush was more alive to the limits of market thinking than were liberals, who feared saying anything that might invite attack from The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.
"The invisible hand works many miracles, but it cannot touch the human heart," Bush declared in July 1999. "We are a nation of rugged individuals. But we are also the country of a second chance tied together by bonds of friendship and community and solidarity." Soothing words, indeed. Yet it is wrong to see compassionate conservatism as a capitulation to liberalism. On the contrary, it was designed to undermine and replace liberalism.
"Reducing problems to economics is simply materialism," Bush declared in 1999, when he was inaugurated for the second time as governor of Texas. "The real answer is found in the hearts of decent, caring people who have heard the call to love their neighbors as they would like to be loved themselves. We must rally the armies of compassion in every community of this state. We must encourage them to love, to nurture, to mentor, to help and thus to offer hope to those who have none."
Or consider these words: "Our national resources are not only material supplies and material wealth but a spiritual and moral wealth in kindliness, in compassion, in a sense of obligation of neighbor to neighbor, and a realization of responsibility by industry, by business and by the community for its social security and its social welfare." The speaker went on: "We can take courage and pride in the effective work of thousands of voluntary organizations for the provision of employment, for the relief of distress, that have sprung up over the entire nation."
George W. Bush again? No, Herbert Hoover, in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression. Hoover was the first compassionate conservative. The similarities are a reminder that Bush was operating very much within his party's conservative tradition.
When Bush took the presidential oath of office on January 20, 2001, his inaugural address was a brilliant distillation of his approach. "In the quiet of the American conscience, we know that deep persistent poverty is unworthy of our nation's promise. And whatever our views of its cause, we can agree that children at risk are not at fault." So far, he had everybody around the table with him, from left to right.
Bush went on to say: "Abandonment and abuse are not acts of God, they are failures of love. And the proliferation of prisons, however necessary, is no substitute for hope and order in our souls." His language here is very important. The root causes of poverty, he's saying, are personal and moral, not social and economic. Given Bush's record on law and order issues, it was moving for him even to bring up the proliferation of prisons as a problem. Yet consider that not poverty or discrimination but abandonment and abuse were the problems poor children faced. "Hope and order in our souls" is the solution to the problem of criminality, not job opportunities or reducing inequality. Thus did Bush shift the focus of the argument over poverty from the economy, government, and society to individuals and their shortcomings.
In the same speech, Bush declared: "Compassion is the work of a nation, not just a government. And some needs and hurts are so deep that they will only respond to a mentor's touch or a pastor's prayer. Church and charity, synagogue and mosque lend our communities their humanity, and they will have an honored place in our plans and in our laws." Whatever this was, it was not the New Deal. It was not the Great Society. It was conservatism, and of a rather old and traditional sort.
The tension within Bushism was on display again when he gave his first big speech after his inauguration, an address to a joint session of Congress on February 27, 2001. Bush made clear that he would act as if he had received a mandate from the voters for his big tax cuts. But he would talk as if he knew perfectly well that the country was in no mood for his reprise of Reaganism.
Much of the speech read as if a gremlin from the Democratic National Committee had snuck an Al Gore speech into the TelePrompTer. The grace notes were composed as Clintonian flourishes. What were Bush's priorities? Democratic priorities: "excellent schools, quality health care, a secure retirement, a cleaner environment." For good measure, there was also talk of a patient's bill of rights, a prescription drug benefit for the elderly, and a slew of smaller government programs that would have done Lyndon B. Johnson proud.
As for Clintonism, old Bill couldn't have done better. "Year after year in Washington," Bush declared, "budget debates seem to come down to an old, tired argument: on one side, those who want more government, regardless of the cost; on the other, those who want less government, regardless of the need."
If your enemies are those who are unconcerned about costs and indifferent to needs, you must be in the political center. You could almost hear Clinton's patented attacks on "the brain dead politics of both parties."
But after invoking all the centrist stuff, Bush offered his one, large priority: a tax cut of $1.6 trillion. And even on taxes, Bush actually made a case for the Democrats' middle-class tax cuts, not his own. The president didn't try to sell his plan as a tax cut for the wealthy which it was because he knew the voters didn't like the idea.
As Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle noted in his rebuttal to Bush, 43 percent of the tax cut went to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. But did Bush haul out a millionaire investment banker or an oil baron to show whom he would be helping? No. Instead, there were Steven and Josefina Ramos from Pennsylvania, respectively a school administrator and a teacher. And he mentioned a hypothetical waitress who would also benefit.
Hiding the wealthy behind waitresses' skirts seemed like good politics. But it was an evasion that would come back to haunt Bush. It would feed the perception which grew when the administration's prewar claims about Iraq were shown to be untrue or exaggerated that Bush was always willing to say the convenient thing and hide inconvenient truths.
Bush wanted a supply-side tax cut without having to make a supply-side case. Where he had sold his tax cut during the campaign as affordable because the economy was booming, he sold it after he was elected as a response to the downturn. Boom, bust whatever.
Compassionate conservatism required squaring so many circles that it inevitably inspired mistrust. Bush's first eight months in office were designed to get a long-term tax cut in place and cause as little short-term political pain as possible. This became clear when he released his budget in April.
Bush chose to evade a first-year ruckus by avoiding big spending cuts. Instead, he created a framework that would force such cuts in the years ahead. Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich could never get all the spending cuts they wanted right away. Instead of picking a losing fight, Bush turned necessity into a virtue: he would push his pleasant product, the tax cuts, first. Once he reduced government revenues, deficits would work their magic and force the large spending cuts later. Bush shrewdly put his faith in what Martin Luther King, Jr., once called, in a different context, "the tranquilizing drug of gradualism." He thus limited his cutbacks to a few areas: the environment, some housing and health programs, and agriculture.
But the cutbacks down the road were hidden in the small print. In the first year, his plan allowed for increases of 4 percent for programs other than the big entitlements such as Social Security. But by 2004, he allowed an increase of only 2.5 percent. Bush's initial budget did not even take into account his plans for new defense spending and this was before 9/11. Conveniently, the administration launched a defense review that put off final decisions on the military until after Bush proposed his budget and big tax cut.
Long before Iraq, in other words, Bush's opponents perceived a pattern of evasion. "Rather than one year of big cuts, he's willing to wait and achieve what he wants over several years," one congressional budget specialist said of Bush at the time. "You've got two jaws to a vise the declining revenues from the tax cut, and this consensus that we can't run a deficit." Of course it was the anti-deficit consensus that broke and, predictably, the deficit soared later in Bush's term.
The Bush tax cut was structured shrewdly to affect politics for years to come and to let conservatives set the political agenda. Many conservative activists were more direct about this than Bush. Grover Norquist, one of the right's most important organizers and a close ally of Rove's, was straightforward in saying that the goal was to reduce government revenues to force a reduction in government's size. The ultimate purpose, said the outspoken Norquist, was to get government "down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." Conservative columnist Donald Lambro acknowledged candidly that Bush's tax cuts "are, in effect, Mr. Bush's stealth initiative to curb future spending big time."
By creating large deficits, Bush and his allies put advocates of more energetic government on the defensive. In the future, they would have to argue for rescinding or repealing tax cuts already passed. This is what Democrats were forced to do in 2004.
In the end, the final Bush tax cut was constructed in such a contorted and deceptive way this was also Congress's work, not just Bush's that the entire tax cut was scheduled to expire at the end of a decade. But this was a great victory for Bush. It concealed the real cost of the tax cut. And few expected that Congress would ever let the entire tax proposal die. Were it to remain in effect, the fiscal problems after Bush left office would be enormous. For the decade beginning in 2012, the cost of his 2001 tax cut alone would total some $4 trillion. Conveniently, Bush would long have been out of office then; inconveniently, that is the moment when the front end of the baby boom will be reaching retirement age.
In one area, though, Bush knew that compassionate conservatism had to deliver something tangible. Bush's approach to negotiating his education reform bill was sharply at odds with the way he negotiated almost everything else. Instead of pursuing a narrow majority of Republicans and conservative Democrats, he went straight to the most liberal Democrats in Congress and worked out a deal to the dismay, it should be said, of some of his more conservative supporters. In getting the "No Child Left Behind Act" passed, Bush threw overboard many conservative commitments, notably to private school vouchers for children in failing public schools.
If there was any reality to compassionate conservatism, it lay in the education issue. This was a Rove imperative: if Bush could reduce the Democrats' advantage on education before Bush came along, polls showed the public vastly preferring Democrats to Republicans on the question he would remove one of the GOP's greatest weaknesses from the political calculus. But education was also a matter on which Bush had taken some political risks as governor of Texas. He had incurred the wrath of some on the right by proposing a tax plan that swapped certain tax cuts for tax increases.
And Bush's principles were hard to disagree with. The schools should be more accountable to parents and children. Testing students nationwide was a way to advance accountability. If this required more money, Bush said he was prepared to spend it.
Moreover, the ground for a cross-party deal on reforming education had been prepared over many years. During the 2000 campaign, Bush and Gore agreed on far more than met the eye. Bush wanted to force failing schools to change. So did Gore. Bush wanted to discipline poor schools by offering modest vouchers to parents so they could move their children to private schools. Gore wanted to require such schools to get rid of failing staffs and to reorganize.
In Congress, many Democrats had shown increasing impatience with educational failure. Representative George Miller of California and Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico often defied their own party's inter-est groups by pushing hard for raising teacher standards. Senators Joe Lieberman, Evan Bayh, and John Kerry funny, isn't it, that all three wanted to be president some day? offered comprehensive education reform bills. Bush drew from a Bayh-Lieberman proposal in fashioning his own plans.
On education, as on almost no other issue, Bush negotiated in what seemed like good faith with the most liberal members of Congress, beginning with the favorite senator of almost every liberal, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Kennedy displayed remarkable amiability in bargaining with Bush, and Bush returned the favor. Bush's staff and Kennedy regularly exchanged compliments and Kennedy urged Democrats to resist the temptation to obstruct Bush on one of his most important campaign promises. "It's an opportunity now and we shouldn't miss it," Kennedy said in April 2001. "If this program goes through properly funded, he ought to get credit for it, and Democrats ought to get credit for its being properly funded so it can come to life." The repetition of those words "properly funded" was to prove important.
During the discussions, each side gave ground. Kennedy moved closer to Bush (and to Lieberman and Bayh) in accepting that states should be given more flexibility in spending federal money. Bush moved away from vouchers and accepted some rather Gore-like ways of disciplining poor schools. And both sides fashioned a compromise through which children who failed could get help, including tutoring, outside the public school system. It was not vouchers, so Democrats could be satisfied. But Republicans could claim a concession to the principle that when public schools failed, outside forces should be allowed to help children to succeed.
The passage of the education bill was a great victory for Bush, and not a bad achievement for the Democrats who helped him. Yet there is a postscript that underscores the extent to which, when choices had to be made, Bush would make spending cuts before he would ever endanger his tax cuts. By the fall of 2003, governors were complaining that Bush had not adequately financed programs to help schools meet the federal law's exacting standards. And Kennedy was in exactly the same place he was when, in happier days, he had negotiated with Bush. "The law made proven, effective reform a priority for all schools," Kennedy told The Washington Post in October 2003, and he returned to his refrain: "To make it a reality, we must fund it." Republican pollster David Winston told the Post at the time that Bush and the Republicans were trailing Democrats by 50 percent to 36 percent on the education issue that fall a 14-point drop for the G.O.P. from January 2002, when Bush had signed his education bill.
Bush belied his sympathetic comments about government in other areas. He proposed to weaken its regulations on the environment, on worker safety, on overtime pay. Most of the budget cuts Bush proposed were in programs for the poor and near poor. (Bush did propose a more responsible and less costly agriculture program, but acceded to Congress in supporting an expensive one. Most of the agricultural states had been painted red for Bush on election night, 2000.)
A stealthy redistribution upward became the hidden theme of Bush's domestic program. Under the cover of promoting growth, Bush shifted more and more of the tax burden from the wealthy. That was the effect of his first tax cut, but the tilt in favor of the rich was even more dramatic in his later proposal to cut the tax on stock dividends.
In the meantime, after the first year of his administration was safely behind him, Bush began offering proposals that created long-term incentives for states to cut their programs to help the poor. A revealing example was Bush's Medicaid reform, proposed in 2003. Bush suggested giving states modest short-term Medicaid relief, but only if they agreed to transform Medicaid into a block grant program. This would lead to cuts in federal help in later years, but the cuts were disguised. Whatever short-term Medicaid relief the states got in advance would be counted as a "loan" to be paid back within the next decade meaning states would receive less federal help down the road as they paid back their "loans."
"The federal government is acting like a loan shark," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a group that supports expanding health insurance coverage. "The federal government is dangling a little money before the states now, and then takes it back."
In later years, the federal government would get out of the business of giving the states automatic protections against increased health care costs or an increase in the number of the uninsured. The result, Pollack said, would be "waiting lists, a reduction in services, and higher premiums, deductibles and co-payments."
Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank that advocates programs for the needy, said states would inevitably be pressured to reduce medical coverage for the working poor the very people the president praises over and over again for their responsibility. This was but one, very revealing policy choice of an administration whose agenda was radical in its stealthy way and threatened to undermine the federal government's rather modest commitment to helping states and cities assist their poorest residents.
Also revealing of the tensions and contradictions within compassionate conservatism was the fate of the president's faith-based initiative, designed to expand federal help to religious charities and social services. In principle, the initiative had broad appeal. During the 2000 campaign, both Al Gore and Joe Lieberman had spoken of the work of faith-based groups and endorsed more partnerships between the government and religious organizations. Liberal skepticism about any program that might erode the "wall of separation" between church and state did not disappear, and some liberals criticized Gore as well as Bush for embracing the idea. But at least some religious liberals saw great possibility in helping religious groups, many of which were passionate in their advocacy on behalf of the poor.
Yet the initiative had effectively collapsed by the summer of 2001. A version of the bill passed in the House, largely with Republican votes, hewed to a far more conservative approach than was acceptable to Democrats in the Senate. More fundamentally, the initiative lacked a constituency committed to its success. And every move the administration made to appease the idea's critics weakened support from likely allies. It was the ultimate irony for compassionate conservatism. An idea Bush had used so effectively began drawing assaults from left to right.
In the campaign, religious conservatives warmed to Bush's arguments that programs rooted in faith could fight poverty by changing hearts. Moderate voters appreciated a Republican who said he wanted to promote compassion and not just tax cuts. But as compassion took a backseat to tax cuts and little new money for the poor actually materialized, the faith-based initiative came to be seen by its critics as a cover for inaction.
One small clue: In his original tax cut package, Bush did not include a proposal (and campaign promise) to allow those who filed the short income tax form i.e., Americans of modest incomes to deduct their charitable contributions. By delaying action on this tax break, Bush signaled that repealing the inheritance tax for large fortunes mattered more to him than mobilizing his "armies of compassion."
The curious thing about the broader faith-based initiative was that if it had worked well, it almost certainly would have directed money to neighborhoods and religious institutions far outside the Republican base. A 1998 survey of more than 1,200 congregations by Mark Chaves of the University of Arizona found that moderate and liberal congregations were more likely than conservative congregations to express interest in applying for government money under existing "charitable choice" programs. Predominantly African-American congregations were far more likely to seek such funds than predominantly white congregations.
That was Bush's political problem. Many white, conservative religious leaders were unenthusiastic about the Bush initiative. They never wanted the government money Bush proposed to put on the table, and some of them feared that accepting any federal dollars would inevitably mean accepting abhorrent federal regulations. African-Americans, the natural constituency for Bush's idea, were split. Some black church leaders endorsed Bush's plan. But many in the African-American community were so mistrustful of the administration that they were unwilling to make common cause with Bush, even if the faith-based plan might have helped black churches. Many leaders of the black church were suspicious that the proposal was simply an effort to buy off influential ministers who had proven their ability to deliver votes to the Democrats.
And then came a story in The Washington Post reporting that the Salvation Army had agreed to lobby for the president's initiative in exchange for federal protections against state and local gay rights statutes. What had been a soothing issue during the campaign was suddenly pushed into the thicket of culture war politics.
In the end, compassionate conservatism was a brilliant construction. There are, in fact, millions of conservatives especially in the churches, synagogues, and mosques who do feel a special responsibility to the poor. And compassionate conservatism did exactly the political work Bush hoped it would. For a while, it delivered, if not much content, then at least that compassionate face that Bush thought was so important. Those who wanted to see Bush as a moderate could listen to the compassion talk and turn their attention away from the heart of Bush's program.
Bush's problem was that he could not be a moderate and satisfy his political base at the same time. To the extent that he satisfied his base, he would disappoint those who thought wrongly that his new language of compassion marked a genuine break from the old conservatism. In the end, Bush chose his conservative base and fought for the issue dearest to its members.
That Bush ultimately won his tax cuts, it should be said, was a tribute not only to his skill and Republican unity but also to the utter flaccidity of moderate Democrats. Anger at Washington Democrats over their failure to challenge Bush on Iraq led to a flood of support in 2003 for Howard Dean's rebellion. A similar rebellion was, if anything, even more justified in 2001 when twelve Senate Democrats voted to push through an only slightly modified version of the Bush tax cut. Republicans, it seemed, had a greater desire to win and much more determination than Democrats.
Yes, the Democrats forced Bush to cut back the size of his tax cut, from $1.6 trillion to $1.25 trillion. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle struggled gamely at the time to argue that Bush "was dragged kicking and screaming" into a budget compromise. Daschle credited moderates in both parties for forcing the president in that direction. But Daschle also admitted that the reduction in the tax cut "wasn't as much as I would have liked."
That was putting it mildly.
The moderate cave-in to Bush suggested a double standard when it came to defining "centrism." Moderate Democrats notably Louisiana Senator John Breaux, who supported the tax cut had argued regularly during the Clinton years that a president's obligation had to create coalitions "from the center out." They meant that he should start with moderate ideas and seek votes from both sides of the political spectrum and the party divide.
But Bush disdained the very "center out" strategy the moderates claimed to believe in. He proposed proudly and without apology a stoutly conservative plan. Far from paying a price for his refusal to reach out, Bush managed to move the entire tax debate to the right. The moderates briefly showed signs of a fight when they forced down the size of the tax cut on the Senate floor. But the moderates quickly went along with a "compromise" that would produce a much bigger tax cut than any Democrat had said was reasonable even a few months earlier.
The episode suggested that when anyone in Washington used big abstractions "center out," "bipartisanship," etc. the words were irrelevant. The real issue was who was trying to push policy where. If "moderation" was good for Clinton but unnecessary for Bush, it was hard to escape the conclusion that those who used the word were trying to foil progressive initiatives and shove policy in a conservative direction. In the case of the Bush tax cut, a genuinely moderate approach would have produced a smaller, more fairly distributed tax cut. By caving so early and so easily, the moderates foiled moderation and suggested that the definition of a "moderate" was a conservative who lacked Tom DeLay's guts or candor.
The polarization of politics later to be interrupted by 9/11 and then to reappear with a vengeance after the Iraq War can be traced in significant part to the politics of the tax cut and the abandonment of any serious "compassion agenda." Bush angered liberals of even a moderate disposition, while many of the moderates gave moderation a bad name. And Bush's tax policies did not resonate outside his political base.
The Jeffords switch destroyed any immediate political benefit Bush might have picked up from his tax victory. The Bush machine, which had seemed so powerful, crashed into a wall of moderate resistance. Bush's efforts to blame Bill Clinton for the faltering economy didn't work. Bush's energy plan developed by Vice President Dick Cheney through a process that, in its secrecy, closely resembled the workings of Hillary Clinton's health care task force, aroused intense opposition from environmentalists. The popular issues of the moment were a prescription drug benefit for seniors and a patient's bill of rights both Democratic issues. In the summer of 2001, the talk was of a fall congressional session in which Bush might find himself playing defense.
In light of the long period after 9/11 during which Bush was regularly painted in the media as a brilliant and heroic leader, it's worth recalling that the press turned very tough on Bush in his summer of discontent in 2001. The widespread view was that his presidency was in jeopardy. Consider Dick Polman's report in the July 25 Philadelphia Inquirer:
As George W. Bush marks the midpoint of his first year in the world's most powerful post, he undoubtedly has discovered the same hard truths that dogged his predecessors. Perks and prerogatives aside, presidents are often besieged by hostile political forces who can't be induced to surrender. They are sometimes hostage to events beyond their control, and they are powerless to do anything about it. Six months after taking the oath on a storm-tossed Saturday, the second President Bush has a stiff wind in his face, and even allies grudgingly agree that he will spend the next six months steering through similar weather....
Already Bush's pro-industry energy initiative has been sliced and diced by moderate congressional Republicans who want less drilling and more conservation. His bid to give federal money to faith-based charities has passed the House but could be treated rudely by the Democratic Senate. And his efforts to cap new federal education spending have been quashed by Democrats....Even his big tax cut is likely to draw fresh scrutiny now that the economic slowdown is shrinking the projected budget surplus.
Polman did find a silver lining. "Things could be worse for Bush," he wrote. "He has been spared a foreign crisis that could trigger a major loss of life."
In an analysis published on July 5, the Los Angeles Times's shrewd political writer Ronald Brownstein stressed the extent to which the Jeffords switch had emboldened Democrats.
"When Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, the White House could keep the public focus solely on the issues it wanted to highlight," Brownstein wrote. "Now, even as aides work to sharpen Bush's agenda for the fall, it must also develop a defensive strategy for responding to Democratic ideas.
"That need has grown more urgent as Bush's public support particularly among centrist voters has drooped in recent weeks," Brownstein went on. "Though he continues to enjoy overwhelming approval from Republicans, recent polls show him suffering unusually high disapproval ratings among Democrats and attracting only tepid backing from independents and moderates."
Brownstein noted that Bush's "overall approval rating has sagged from the 55% to 60% range earlier this year to around 50% in several recent surveys." This was bad news, indeed. "Among past presidents over the last 50 years," Brownstein added, "only Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter saw their approval ratings fall this early in their term, according to Gallup polls. The sharpest declines have come among moderates and independents; Bush has been hurt with both groups by the perception that he is more conservative than he appeared during the campaign and favors special interests on issues such as the energy debate."
The negative view of Bush's stewardship prevailed right to the eve of September 11. "If congressional Republicans seem worried these days, they have reason to be," wrote the respected non-partisan political analyst Charlie Cook in the September 8 issue of the National Journal. "If the economy were on a heart-rate monitor, the results would be awfully close to a flat line. The budget surplus is history, unless Social Security and Medicare funds are included. The economic downturn and President Bush's tax cut share the blame....Factor in a strong history of midterm congressional election losses for the party in control of the White House, and any Republican stalwart should be concerned."
On September 10, Wayne Washington wrote in the Boston Globe: "With the weak American economy rising to the top of Americans' concerns, President Bush is trying to limit the political damage, while Democrats look on skeptically." Washington quoted veteran White House adviser David Gergen's rather dismal view of Bush's prospects: "A downward spiraling economy is very likely to cost him seats in the 2002 election, which will hurt his power in the following two years and could well cost him the election."
Nor was Bush's foreign policy winning him any respect. "When it comes to foreign policy, we have a tongue-tied administration," wrote Morton Abramowitz, former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It is hard to think of another administration that has done so little to explain what it wants to do in foreign policy." The administration view, said Abramowitz, seemed to be: "the less talk, the fewer problems."
Abramowitz's critique appeared in The Washington Post on the morning of September 11, 2001.
Copyright © 2004 by E. J. Dionne, Jr.