Ballot Box

Bush So Far

I passed up the chance to assess George W. Bush at 100 days not just because the genre seems so hackneyed but also because I’m skeptical about the possibility of saying much that is meaningful about a new president after so brief a period in office. If you look back at the 100-day pieces that were written about Bill Clinton in 1993, they’re not so much wrong as they are simply beside the point. For the most part, they contain no inkling of either what turned out to be successful in Clinton’s presidency or the ways in which things went wrong. After a mere 100 days in office, neither the narrative nor even its basic direction was well-established. I doubt that comparable pieces about Bush will look much more insightful four or eight years from now.

At the same time, after a bit more than 100 days, it turns out to be possible to offer some tentative analysis of the Bush presidency after all. Just in the last two weeks, we have gotten an idea of where Bush’s efforts to cut taxes and reform the federal role in education are likely to end up. These are two of his three signature causes. (The third, Social Security privatization, has been punted to a commission.) So before I head off on a summer sabbatical, I want to offer this provisional judgment: The Bush presidency thus far has been impressive in its competence and surprising in its conservatism.

First, competence. Even Bush’s harshest critics will have to concede that the new administration has showed itself to be capable and effective at the basic work of the presidency. The new tenor of the West Wing is spruce, businesslike, and on time. If the Clinton administration was like an 8-year-old’s soccer game, with all the players chasing the ball at once, Bush’s has been more like a military operation. The White House has defined a clear, limited agenda. It has put across its message in a single-minded, if sometimes simple-minded, fashion. It has established a press operation that makes up in efficiency what it lacks in openness. It has been amazingly free of leaks and the kinds of snafus over appointments that helped to make Clinton’s start so rocky. It has established cordial, productive relations with Republicans on Capitol Hill. All of this has contributed to a record remarkably free of major mistakes. And where Bush has made obvious political blunders (Linda Chavez, arsenic), he has moved promptly to contain the damage.

It’s no great shock that Bush has made the trains run on time. What is a surprise, at least to me, is the general direction of the Bush presidency on policy matters. Bush ran as a moderate Republican who would bring a party that had swung too far right back toward the mainstream. Getting fewer votes than Al Gore on Election Day ought to have solidified Bush’s resolve to position himself in the center. He cannot win re-election unless he further broadens his base. But for some reason, Bush has reached out to the right more often than he has to the middle.

Some of his cordiality with the cons is symbolic. Movement cadres like Grover Norquist are suddenly receiving the kind of attention they haven’t had since Newt Gingrich was in the saddle. But there is also a growing list of policy choices that mark Bush as a right-wing Republican in the way his father never was. Not only has Bush taken the expected positions on bread-and-butter conservative issues like tax cuts and missile defense, he has given no quarter to moderates on environmental issues, reversing his campaign pledge to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and treating energy conservation as an elitist affectation. On abortion, Bush has done a number of things to make social conservatives happy, such as appointing John Ashcroft as attorney general and trying to reinstate the ban on abortion counseling overseas. A smaller number of stances point in a more centrist direction. Bush has irritated a few of the more fanatical movement conservatives by appointing an openly gay AIDS czar and seems to be in the process of surrendering to Ted Kennedy on the big education bill now working its way through Congress. Still, the overall tilt is clear.

What explains these two traits, Bush’s competence and his conservatism? Part of the answer is Bush himself. He’s process-oriented rather than policy-oriented. As noted in this earlier column, he is more genuinely conservative than his dad. But these twin tendencies also reflect Bush’s strong instinct to avoid the mistakes of his last two predecessors. He has made a particular point of avoiding the overreaching and organizational disarray that resulted in Bill Clinton’s first year being such a bumpy ride. And he has gone out of his way to pre-empt the sort of conservative backlash that helped to undermine his father’s presidency. I still think there’s a good chance that Bush’s early appeasement of the right-wingers is tactical. He could be shrewdly seducing them now in order to soften the blow when he screws them with his first Supreme Court appointment. But even if that’s Bush’s plan, I think he’s bending farther to the right than is politically sensible. 

The risk for the Bush administration is that the next war is always different from the last war. Bush is patting himself on the back for not constructing the political equivalent of a Maginot line. What he cannot foresee is that his problem is going to be a Panzer attack, or guerrilla warfare, or the atom bomb. In fact, Bush may get himself into serious political trouble precisely by overlearning the lessons of the last two presidents. That is, where Clinton was insufficiently competent and Bush 41 was insufficiently conservative, Bush 43 may prove to be excessively competent and excessively conservative.

How can a president be too competent? By taking on such a limited, attainable agenda that he doesn’t create a significant record of accomplishment. Clinton’s agenda was too ambitious; he never got large portions of it passed. But underreaching may be an even greater political danger than overreaching. What happens next year, after Bush passes a tax cut that has no great effect on anyone and an education reform bill that merely helps us measure how inadequate our public schools remain? Voters may find themselves hungering for someone who aspires to do more than manage and preside. Setting the bar extremely low has worked for Bush in debates and political campaigns in the past. But ultimately, the presidency is not an expectations game. It’s an achievement game.

The hazard of conservative excess is even more significant. Bush may be entirely correct in his judgment about the need to appease the activists in his own party. But following such a precept unthinkingly could lead him down a garden path to oblivion. When one of the five votes for Roe v. Wade retires from the U.S. Supreme Court, Bush will be under heavy pressure from conservatives to pick someone who will vote to overturn the decision. If such a move brings the basic legal status of abortion into question, Bush will find that he has energized liberals like nothing since the Vietnam War. If Bush appoints someone who makes Gary Bauer squeal with delight, I think he could end up handing both Congress and the White House back to the Democrats.

The president’s personal beliefs and the conservative echo chamber around the White House may encourage him to try to move against Roe. But if I had to guess, I’d predict that when push comes to shove, Bush’s impressive competence will override his surprising conservatism.

Photograph of President Bush on the Slate Table of Contents by Gary Hershorn/Reuters.