The Lonely Centrist

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Monday, October 23, 2006

Bush the Divider

In today's Los Angeles Times, Ron Brownstein repeats what has become something of a staple for shallow political analysis: from the get-go, George Bush based his presidency on dividing the electorate.
From the outset of his presidency, Bush has accepted division as the price of mobilization.

With a few exceptions, such as education and immigration policy, he has targeted his central initiatives — tax cuts, judicial appointments, the unilateral projection of U.S. power abroad — primarily at the priorities of conservatives while conceding little to interests outside his coalition.

In Congress and across the country, that ideologically polarizing agenda has helped Bush unify and excite Republicans. But it has come at the cost of antagonizing Democrats and straining his relations with independent voters.

It is true that the country is now sharply divided, and has been for some time. But I think Brownstein's analysis is off the mark. Let's think back a bit...

Back in 2000, Bush did not run as the conservative candidate for the GOP nomination. There, he was outflanked by Pat Buchanan, Dan Quayle, and even, early on, John McCain. This dynamic flipped when McCain discovered he could get good press from campaign finance reform and hinting that he was rethinking his longstanding opposition to abortion, and when Bush responded to McCain's early success by moving right. Even then, however, Bush's call for "compassionate conservatism" and his repudiation of the small government philosophy of the libertarian wing of the GOP left many conservatives suspicious.

The 2000 campaign was largely waged on centrist turf by two candidates who adopted basically centrist platforms. Wing nuts - Clinton haters on the GOP right, and the unreconstructed Reagan haters on the Democratic left - were in the minority. Then came the election and more importantly its aftermath, when Al Gore broke tradition by contesting the election through extended legal proceedings, absent any evidence of fraud. Gore's campaign chairman appeared on national television the morning after the election to announce, for all intents and purposes, that Gore would not accept any recount that did not proclaim Gore the winner. Republicans responded in kind and things quickly spun out of control. Even after Bush won, Gore was ungracious, saying only that Bush was "selected," not "elected" president. Leftist Democratic House members contested the electoral vote count. By inauguration day, things were pretty bitter indeed.

Republicans, it seems to me, made a pretty good effort to soothe tensions. In the evenly divided U.S. Senate, after some tough negotiating by Democratic leader Tom Daschle, Republican leader Trent Lott agreed to a power sharing arrangement, rather than insist on GOP control based on Vice President Cheney's tie-breaking vote. Meanwhile, over at the executive branch, the President extended the olive branch. His cabinet nominees included hardened conservatives such as John Ashcroft, but for the most part they were quite conciliatory and representative of the broad Republican coalition. Appointees such as Colin Powell, Christie Todd Whitman, Nixon/Ford retread Don Rumsfeld, Paul O'Neil, Mel Martinez, and Democrat Norman Mineta hardly represent the far right of the GOP.

Bush's first major initiative was one of the "exceptions" noted by Brownstein - the education bill, or "no child left behind," which Bush largely turned over to Senator Ted Kennedy. Bush's first set of judicial nominees, which Brownstein holds is an area where Bush has sought to favor "priorities" of conservatives, included two Democratic nominees. Bush took the unprecedented step of renominating two Clinton nominees who had not been confirmed by the Senate, Roger Gregory and Barrington Parker. Other nominees included elected women judges from major states of Ohio and Texas. Yet Senate Democrats, having taken control of the Chamber after Senator Jim Jeffords switched parties, quickly pocketed the two renominated Democrats and then began to filibuster the other nominees.

Bush largely allowed Democrats to write the federal budget, so long as he got his tax cuts approved. Another early push came for Bush's "faith based initiatives," allowing more interaction between government and private religious charities. The Democrats opposed it, even though it was a plan that addressed a historic area of Democratic concern - poverty - with more government spending and involvement. But Democrats would not swallow the allowance for more involvement by religious charities. Even on taxes, there was considerable compromise, with Bush agreeing to Democratic proposals for small, across the board rebates. Yet it is hard for me to remember any Bush policy of his first year that was not met with resistance by the Democratic congressional leadership.

Brownstein specifically mentions education and immigration as exceptions to Bush's partisanship. Those are pretty big exceptions, and as Brownstein notes, there have been others - primarily spending, another big exception.

Thus, I see events quite differently from the conventional wisdom. Far from entering office determined to promote his base and divide the country, Bush took numerous steps, both substantive and symbolic (been past the Robert F. Kennedy Depart of Justice Building lately?) to work with Democrats. He met almost constant opposition from the Democratic leadership. There was no compromise on the liberal side of aisle. So Bush went where he could - he looked right. This shift was exacerbated by the decision to invade Iraq, a disastrous choice for Bush. Here Democratic opposition was more merited, but, sadly, feckless. Rather than articulate principled opposition to the move, leading Democrats either supported it, and then whined about having been "lied to" when things went badly, or, mainly on the far left, proferred idiotic reasons for opposition: the ANSWER, "no blood for oil," doofus left.

What is ironic, as we head down the stretch of this campaign season, is that Bush ought to be able to claim a successful presidency. The economy is strong. Unemployment is at 4.6%, compared to 6.0% in 1994, when Republicans swept away Democratic congressional majorities. The stock market, buffeted by the costs of security and the uncertainties of a post-9/11 world and the goofy legislation known as "Sarbanes-Oxley," has nevertheless reached record highs in as we enter the final weeks of the campaign. There has been no follow up terrorist attack on U.S. soil. High government spending and immigration are irritants, but not affecting the immediate quality of life in any noticeable fashion. Besides, no serious observer believes that the Democrats will control spending better than the Republicans, or take a harder line on immigration (the former of which I support and the latter of which I oppose). Democrats, who have long demanded taxes to raise the price of gasoline, are now horrified at the high price of gasoline - even if it has gone back down to real price levels that Jimmy Carter and Democrats who opposed price deregulation in the late 70s and early 80s could only dream of. Only Iraq - a mistaken front in the War on Terrorism - is a real problem. Yet even casualties there, tragic as they are, are not high in any historic sense - - more often in the range of a few dozen to a hundred a month than anything resembling Vietnam or even Korea, let alone WWII casualties. Corruption in Congress is demonstrably a bipartisan affair. Perhaps the biggest long-term concern we should have - the one that really might make the strongest case for change - is the failure to block North Korea's nuclear program. But it's not clear what any administration could have done, and in case, this issue is clearly not driving the elctorate. Even North Korea's nuclear test could barely tear Americans away from the Mark Foley gay/teenage sex scandal for more than a day or two.

Divided America? You bet. Bush's fault? When was the last time you heard a Democrat say anything nice about Bush? Have you ever heard a leading Democratic political figure say anything nice about Bush or his agenda? It takes two to compromise. My point is not to play a blame game. Certainly, at many points, Bush might have done more, such as appoint a Democrat to head the Department of Homeland Security. But that's just the point. There is lots of blame to go around. Blaming the divisions solely on Bush is both a) not true and b) not helpful. The divisions will heal only when partisans on both sides agree to come together in good faith.

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