Ballot Box: My Right Foot

First came John Ashcroft, Gale Norton, and Linda Chavez, three Cabinet appointments designed to warm the cockles of conservative hearts. Then, even before the inauguration, George W. Bush suggested that he might rescind Bill Clinton’s last-minute executive orders protecting public lands. On Bush’s first full day as president, his chief of staff affirmed that he would press the Food and Drug Administration to reconsider whether the abortion pill RU-486 is “safe.” On his second day, he reinstated a pre-Clinton executive order banning family-planning groups that receive federal money from encouraging or providing abortions. He’s expected to move soon to outlaw so-called partial-birth abortions and prohibit scientific research using fetal tissue.

There may be specific explanations for each of these steps to the right. Ashcroft was reportedly Bush’s third choice, after the more moderate GOP Govs. Mark Racicot of Montana and Frank Keating of Oklahoma. Bush may have rushed his international family-planning order out the door after his wife, Laura, commented in a pre-inaugural interview that she didn’t think Roe v. Wade should be overturned. Nonetheless, the various moves add up to a preliminary political posture for the administration. Four days into the Bush era, the religious right is ecstatic, mainstream Democrats are alarmed, and the liberal interest groups are in high dudgeon. For a fellow who came in talking about the need for bipartisan cooperation, changing the tone, and so forth, Bush has started off with a pronounced lurch to the right. What gives?

I don’t have a definitive answer. But here are the leading theories, arranged in order of increasing Machiavellianism.

1.It’s who he really is. According to this line, George W. is nothing like his father at heart. He’s not a liberal, Atlantic Coast Republican trying to pass muster with the New Right. He’s a genuine, true-believing Texas conservative. When Bush says he wants to prevent abortion he’s not posturing for his base. He really means it. If he gets a chance to challenge Roe v. Wade, he’ll do it. The stuff about cooperating with Democrats is PR.

I find it interesting (as the president often says) that the two groups with a stake in believing this are the far right and the ideological left. Movement conservatives pray that Bush really is one of them. Liberal interest groups want a convincing red flag to wave to rally the troops. This makes me suspicious. The substantive objection to the view of Bush as a true-blue conservative is that it’s unsupported by his record as governor of Texas or by his campaign for president. As governor, Bush kept his state’s religious conservatives in check while appointing moderate judges and supporting a big increase in education spending. During the campaign he repeatedly stressed his ability to forge bipartisan compromise. The agenda he ran on—tax cuts, entitlement privatization, and a stronger federal role in raising education standards—is a moderate-conservative one. If Bush was hiding his real views, he was hiding them extremely convincingly for a very long time.

2.He owes the right, big-time. Conservatives were good soldiers for Bush during the campaign. They supported him over candidates who were closer to their beliefs because they saw Bush as a winner. They didn’t torture him with loyalty oaths or embarrass him by being spotted at the Republican convention in Philadelphia. Now he’s paying off his debt. Another version of this theory is that Bush is motivated by the fear of remaking his father’s mistakes. He realizes that conservative disappointment could pose a bigger threat to his presidency than liberal opposition.

There’s some evidence for this interpretation. The religious right reportedly had a role in choosing Ashcroft over Racicot. The objection to it is that Bush looks to be paying off his debts threefold. One neo-Confederate in the Cabinet would have satisfied the ultra-cons; Bush gave them two, and Linda Chavez to boot. Such overpayment doesn’t make political sense if Bush is trying to govern from the center or hopes to hang on to a Republican Congress in 2002.

3.It’s tactical. Bush knows he’s going to upset the conservatives by leaving Roe v. Wade alone, abandoning education vouchers, not worrying about affirmative action, and so on. But to screw them later he’s got to appease them now. This is the governing corollary of Richard Nixon’s famous election advice to Republicans: You run right in the primaries and then to the center once you’ve secured the nomination. With Ashcroft at Justice, Bush will be safe to appoint justices who won’t agitate against Roe. An even more diabolical version has Bush intentionally inciting liberal interest groups as a bank shot to please the conservative base.

The problem with this theory is that it’s too clever by half. It allows you to assume that everything Bush does actually means the opposite of what it seems. Tacking right at the outset is also dubious as a political strategy. “If Republicans try to force too many things too quickly, without building up the reservoir of popularity our new president will need, our shiny new political supremacy will expire in 20 short months, and we will be once again a minority party,” former John McCain adviser Mike Murphy writes in the Weekly Standard.

4.He’s feigning a mandate. Washington, it is often said, is a town of perceptions. Bush got 500,000 fewer popular votes that Al Gore. But if he swaggers around like he’s got a resounding mandate, he’ll have the functional equivalent of one.

Apparently, there are people around Bush who see things this way. A few weeks ago, Mike Allen quoted one of them in the Washington Post. “The feeling is that the country deserves governance and if you don’t assert the sovereignty and legitimacy of your administration from the outset, you undermine your ability to achieve your goals later,” the adviser said. Unfortunately, the Bushies have gotten into trouble with this kind of attitudinizing before. In the closing days of the campaign, Karl Rove went around telling everybody that Bush was going to sweep into office. The idea was that people would vote for the perceived winner. The reality was that the attempt to manipulate voter psychology nearly resulted in Bush serving out his term as governor of Texas. The problem with this tactic is that perceptions aren’t reality, even in Washington.

In fact, these various theories aren’t mutually exclusive. Each supplies part of the explanation for Bush’s recent behavior. And there’s a fifth possibility, too, which seems to me the most persuasive. Bush doesn’t think he’s being all that conservative. He doesn’t see himself jerking right for the same reason Bill Clinton didn’t think he was lurching left at the beginning of his first term. The presidency creates a kind of political echo chamber, especially when one party controls both the executive and legislative branches. In 1993, Clinton didn’t realize that what were consensus views within his party would come across as extreme positions to the populace as a whole. When he wanted to reclaim the center after the 1994 election, Clinton had to bring in Dick Morris and undermine his own staff. In the same way, Bush risks finding the heart of the GOP while misjudging the center of the larger debate. And if he wants to avoid this fate? He’ll need to escape the conservative hothouse that is now his home.