Bush can no longer dictate his terms

By Jacob Weisberg

Financial Times

Published: January 25 2007

For the past six years, George W. Bush has treated Congress the way he treats the United Nations, the press and most of his own cabinet secretaries – as an unavoidable irritant. In spite of having run for president in 2000 on the strength of his ability to find compromise with the Democratically controlled legislature in Texas when governor, he has for the better part of six years treated the people’s representatives with barely veiled contempt.

Once established in the White House, Mr Bush the “uniter” quickly became Mr Bush the “decider”. In the Bush Constitution, as opposed to the US Constitution, the executive leads, the legislature accedes and the judiciary defers.

This imperious attitude has characterised Mr Bush’s major speeches to Congress. His previous State of the Union addresses have all represented attempts – more successful than not in the first term, more not than successful in the second – to impose his will on Washington. His administration’s attitude towards Congressional challenge was perhaps best summed up by Dick Cheney’s suggestion on the Senate floor that Pat Leahy of Vermont perform an anatomical impossibility.

It would be foolhardy to think that Mr Bush’s true feelings have changed. Until the day he leaves office, he will regard members of Congress as meddlesome Lilliputians trying to tie him down. But the reality is that they have now tied him down.

Faced with an assertive and so far remarkably effective Democratic Congress – and with no supportive public to turn to – Mr Bush must suppress his tendency to arrogance and bullying as best he can. He is no longer in a position to dictate terms.

Mr Bush’s grudging recognition of this reality is the key to last night’s speech. It explains the elaborate obsequies offered to Nancy Pelosi, the house speaker; the conciliatory tone (“Our citizens don’t much care which side of the aisle we sit on – as long as we are willing to cross that aisle”); the absence of Mr Bush’s familiar taunting and demagoguery; his offer to include members of Congress in a “special advisory council” on terrorism; and even Mr Bush’s plaintive request that they give his new Iraq strategy a chance.

It also explains the curiously moderate policy ideas he offered. The most interesting was a new healthcare plan. Mr Bush proposed that employer-provided insurance be taxed over the threshold of $7,500 for individuals and $15,000 for families. With the funds raised by this tax increase – and make no mistake, a tax increase is precisely what it is – Mr Bush would make privately purchased insurance deductible as well, up to the same limits.

While this plan falls far short of universal coverage, it is a plausible and progressive step. Capping the deductibility of insurance would help to control healthcare costs, because an unbounded tax subsidy encourages Americans to buy more treatment than they really need. Extending this benefit to those who do not get coverage through their work will help the uninsured to afford insurance, especially if the tax deduction evolves into a tax credit. Were the source different, Democrats might embrace this proposal instead of excoriating it.

The same is true of Mr Bush’s energy suggestions, which included an explicit target for reducing petrol consumption (20 per cent over 10 years), a push toward alternative fuels and his first-ever endorsement of fuel economy standards for cars.

On immigration, too, Mr Bush gave Democrats cover and angered Republicans, with his support for a robust “guest worker” system and his call to steer a middle path between “amnesty” and “animosity” toward illegal residents.

Mr Bush’s new tone comes easily to him because he has taken it before – not only during the 2000 campaign, but in the early months of his presidency, when he struck a deal with Ted Kennedy and the Democrats on education reform. Mr Bush also finds a model for his new stance in a man he despises – Bill Clinton, in the final, post-impeachment phase of his presidency. Mr Bush hopes to emulate the way Mr Clinton avoided becoming a lame duck after many wrote him off by thinking smaller, coming up with creative solutions and selectively seeking compromise with his congressional opponents.

The embarrassment Mr Bush faces is similarly of his own making, but the comparison ends there.

The president lacks Mr Clinton’s patience, his policy acumen and his ability to cast a temporary spell over his political enemies. Even if Mr Bush can sustain his new tone into next week, Democrats are not inclined to respond in kind. In his official response, Senator James Webb of Virginia said that if Mr Bush will not follow them, Democrats can govern without him because they represent the people’s will. Mr Cheney put it more succinctly.

However, if only because he is stubborn and wields a veto pen, Mr Bush remains central to the question of what Congress can accomplish over the next two years.

Democrats, no less than Republicans, now face the quandary of how to deal with the problem of a ruined president. Shall they work with Mr Bush in pursuit of legislative accomplishments for which he would share the credit? Or shall they hold out for his utter subjugation and defeat?