Frame Game

As If

Sixteen months ago, after George W. Bush lost the New Hampshire primary by a wide margin, this column compared him to an Internet company whose stock had been propped up by sheer momentum. “People support him because other people support him,” I argued. “This is what stock market analysts call a speculative bubble. Prick the confidence and the bubble bursts.”

Seven weeks later, the Nasdaq began a slide that would dissolve a third of its value by Election Day. Bush, on the other hand, maintained just enough support—537 votes in Florida—to capture the presidency. Having anticipated his defeat, I confessed my error. “Predicting that Bush’s stupidity and stubbornness would cost him the election was like predicting that a mismanaged company’s stock would fall below a specific level by Nov. 7,” I conceded. “The directional forecast was sound, but the time and distance were guesswork.”

Now that Sen. Jim Jeffords, R-Vt., has left the GOP, and Bush has lost the Senate, it’s worth revisiting this question. Is this just another “bump in the road,” as Bush said of his debacle in New Hampshire? Or is it the resumption of a correction in Bush’s political stock? Was popular support for Bush and his policies overestimated? Did Bush overestimate that support himself? Was his air of confidence, like the confidence of technology companies and investors in the late 1990s, self-fulfilling? If so, can that cycle be sustained? Will the loss of the Senate—and with it, the probability of passing significant legislation beyond the tax cut—derail the Bush bandwagon, just as weak earnings punctured the Nasdaq? To what extent can perception shape reality? And what kind of reality can shatter perception?

Look back at Bush’s career. In 1998, no viable Democrat challenged his governorship, so Bush won re-election in a landslide. In 1999, Bush used that landslide and his name to round up a prohibitively formidable array of donors and endorsements in the Republican primaries. Several of his rivals quit the race in despair. The rest eventually succumbed to Bush’s superior firepower and aura of invincibility. After losing and regaining the lead in the general election, Bush’s strategists spent the last two weeks of the campaign predicting a huge win and sending Bush to California and New Jersey to flaunt his confidence. They thought voters would flock to him because he looked like a winner. Instead, he lost the popular vote and faced a recount to resolve the Electoral College.

Was Bush humbled? Not at all. He resumed his air of inevitability, parading Cabinet nominees before network TV cameras as if the votes in Florida weren’t being recounted. Having lost his party’s four-seat advantage in the Senate as well as the popular vote for president, he decided to govern as if voters had issued a mandate for an agenda even more conservative than the one on which he had campaigned. He locked horns with John McCain over HMO regulation and campaign-finance reform. He held out for the biggest tax cut he could squeak through the Senate, as if it didn’t matter how narrow and partisan the majority of senators holding the Bush line against smaller tax-cut proposals became. On the environment and abortion, he chose Cabinet secretaries and policies that would appease the right, as if liberal and moderate Republicans, representing states that had voted decisively for the Democratic presidential ticket, had nowhere else to go.

When Jeffords disagreed with his conservative colleagues on education reform, the White House circumvented him, ignoring his chairmanship of the relevant committee. When Jeffords disagreed with Bush on how much of the surplus to allocate to tax cuts, Bush’s chief of staff called news outlets in Vermont to promote Bush’s position and light a fire under Jeffords. A month ago, Bush’s aides omitted Jeffords from a White House ceremony honoring a Vermont teacher. On May 14, the Weekly Standard, citing “White House and Senate sources,” reported that the omission was “a taste of things to come for Jeffords.” According to a senior Republican quoted by the Standard, the White House had developed “a one- or two-year plan to punish [Jeffords] for his behavior,” probably starting with the removal of price supports for New England dairy farmers. As if, with a 50-50 Senate, Bush could hurt Jeffords more than Jeffords could hurt Bush.

So Jeffords walked. On May 24, he announced he would leave the GOP and hand control of the Senate to the Democrats. “In the past,” Jeffords explained, “the various wings of the Republican Party in Congress have had some freedom to argue and influence and ultimately to shape the party’s agenda. The election of President Bush changed that dramatically. … I can see more and more instances where I’ll disagree with the president on very fundamental issues—the issues of choice, the direction of the judiciary, tax and spending decisions, missile defense, energy and the environment.” Desperate to salvage their majority, Republicans implored Sen. Zell Miller, a conservative Georgia Democrat, to switch to the GOP. Miller refused. Why? Because Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle had taken care not to punish or alienate the moderates in his caucus.

What has Bush concluded from this disaster? Not much. He didn’t listen to the speech in which Jeffords explained his departure. On national TV, Bush’s senior advisers insisted that Bush wouldn’t modify his agenda. They impugned Jeffords’ motives and accused him of “fundamental, philosophical differences with the president and with the majority of mainstream America.” According to a Washington Post report,

Bush advisers have rejected the notion of scaling back Bush’s proposals … arguing that such a surrender would reduce the president’s clout. Instead, the White House will step up its earlier effort to pressure senators in precarious seats to back the unchanged Bush program. … Bush advisers said one model for the bully-pulpit approach is the tax cut campaign, in which Bush traveled to the states of vulnerable senators to pressure them to back his plan. “When you have a coalition-style government, you have to use the bully pulpit to change the terms of the battlefield,” said one.

Four days later, the Post published a memo from a coalition of businesses lobbying for the Bush energy plan. To companies that might stray from the party line, the memo’s author warned, “I have been advised that this White House ‘will have a long memory.’ “

In short, Bush’s faith in the “as-if” theory of politics remains unshaken. On this theory, perception creates reality. Success breeds success. The pulpit makes the bully. A president builds clout by wielding it. Momentum justifies a company’s share price. Buy, and others will buy. Display confidence, and you’ll win the confidence of others. Project invincibility, and resistance will crumble. Tell your allies you have a long memory, and they’ll fall into line. Attack, and you’ll change the terms of the battlefield. Assert that the public is with you, and senators will comply as if that were true. Act as if you have power, and you’ll have it. So far, this theory has served Bush well. Last year, it got him the presidency. This year, it got him a $1.35 trillion tax cut.

 The Jeffords defection, however, suggests that Bush’s triumphs, such as they are, haven’t disproved—and may yet be undone by—an alternative theory of politics. On this theory, perception can’t permanently control reality. Success at one endeavor doesn’t entail success at another. Confidence alone doesn’t guarantee the confidence of others. A president can’t wield clout he hasn’t built. The battlefield doesn’t change just because you attack. Senators won’t fear a popular uprising on behalf of your agenda if the polls don’t show it. Stock valuations propelled by momentum will eventually collapse if corporate earnings don’t justify them. And when the equation of perception with reality visibly shatters, the collective psychology of momentum turns upside down, devouring its adherents. Sell, and others will sell. Resist the president, and his invincibility crumbles.

Bush has been here before. He tumbled in New Hampshire but came back in South Carolina. He tumbled in post-convention polls but recaptured his lead in the fall. He was denied a plurality of the vote in November but won passage of his tax cut. There’s no guarantee that boldness and confidence won’t lead him out of disaster again. But it’s just as likely, at a minimum, that these traits will lead him deeper into it. The White House’s response to Jeffords’ defection suggests that Bush doubts things can get worse. As if.