The Bush political recovery may just have begun. A number of steps remain, though — difficult steps worth examining (highlighted in bold) in some detail. First things first: With the commutation of the prison sentence of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, President George W. Bush not only did (at least partially) the right thing; he also took the first step towards a long-shot but still possible comeback in public esteem and influence, and in the ultimate judgment of history.
Although the commutation was both reasonable and well-reasoned on the merits — without regard to political considerations — the basic political reality is that Bush cannot regain his political standing without first securing (or re-securing) the strong allegiance of the conservatives who have been his most bedrock supporters. Most of those conservatives would not have forgiven Bush if he had let Libby serve time in prison; conversely, the commutation might go a small way, at least, toward re-energizing them.
But Bush still has a long way to go. To recover politically, he must do at least four more things.
First, he must learn to lose gracefully and turn losses to his advantage.
Second, he must try new tactics and styles of communication.
Third, he must skillfully use battles over the judiciary to his advantage.
Fourth, he must be seen as working to mitigate high energy prices.
Meanwhile, of course, even as Bush works on all four of those tracks, which are ones he has a reasonable chance of controlling, he will never complete his comeback without achieving identifiable success in Iraq. But that is mostly a topic for another day.
SO, YOU MIGHT ASK, how can Bush accomplish those four big tasks? Let’s start with losing gracefully (1), where he can learn a lesson from current Alabama Gov. Bob Riley.
The big loss Bush just suffered, of course, occurred on the massive immigration bill that went down in flames last week. His first reaction to the loss wasn’t helpful. He looked and sounded shaken, and in effect he chided Congress for not producing results. The response was politically tone-deaf. It made him sound like a sore loser. But there is still time to change that impression.
When Gov. Riley pushed a massive and complicated tax reform package in his first year in office, only to see it rejected by a stunning 2-1 margin, he greeted the news with an open and engaging, if somewhat sheepish, smile. He said he had learned something from the people of Alabama and would take it to heart. He said he would find another way to meet their needs and his public obligations, and that state government would need to perform better in order to re-earn the trust of its citizens. And he did it with all the grace and good humor with which golfer Jack Nicklaus was justly famed for greeting tough losses to the likes of Lee Trevino and Tom Watson.
Riley went back to work, attacked the state’s fiscal problems and tax inequities in bite-sized chunks…and, three years later, despite having won his first term by a mere 3,000 votes out of more than 1.3 million cast, Riley earned re-election in a landslide even as his Republican Party took major losses nationwide.
Bush could do likewise. After the Independence Day recess, he should say that he accepts the judgment of the American people on immigration, namely that existing laws ought to be better enforced and that government performance must be upgraded before more comprehensive reforms are attempted. He could vow, in addition to better enforcement, to approach the subject with smaller, piecemeal reforms (i.e., bite-sized chunks), beginning only with those that are less controversial and more easily implemented.
A newfound ability to acknowledge and learn from losses or mistakes, and to adjust accordingly, would begin to earn him respect from disaffected voters in the political right and center.
ALL THAT SAID, the immigration defeat was partly a symptom of a larger problem: President Bush has not communicated his positions in a way that persuades people who aren’t already on his side. He needs to try new methods of communication (2).
One reason Bush fails to connect with large parts of the public is that he communicates only one way: deductively. He starts with a big principle, asserts that the principle is universal, and then outlines policy choices based on that principle. The problem is that many people either don’t buy into the principle in the first place, or they don’t see its relevance to their own particular world. In short, they need to be persuaded, but Bush merely preaches. What those people — most people — need is the sort of inductive reasoning used by Sherlock Holmes: Build fact upon fact (or reasoned argument upon reasoned argument) in order to reach a broader conclusion, or in this case a broader principle.
Certainly, a communicator needs to set the scene, and set an overarching theme, from the very beginning. But then he needs to circle back and illustrate the theme in familiar terms, and to prove its relevance to familiar concerns, before moving on to new prescriptions. It is this second step that Bush consistently fails to perform.
Not only that, but President Bush needs to take better advantage of the new tools of communication. He ought to be issuing blog statements; he ought to be going on talk radio (or at least releasing recorded statements to talk radio outlets); and he ought to be seen and heard not just talking, but also listening and responding to those who are in neither his inner circle nor in the “mainstream media.”
THERE’S MORE HE CAN DO to communicate better, but let’s move on, because it matters not how skilled a communicator he is if he is choosing the wrong things to communicate. He ought to choose better topics, substantively; and there is no better topic, both substantively and politically, than judges (3). The president ought to use the end of the recent Supreme Court term to embrace the new, tenuous court majority. Large majorities of Americans agree with Chief Justice Roberts, for instance, that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” And the vast majority of Americans (including the vast majority of those in Congress, judging from their votes) agree that state legislatures ought to be able to limit partial birth abortions.
Similarly, large majorities of Americans, including centrists and independents, agree with the results of conservative jurisprudence on private property rights (especially against government confiscation of property for other private use), against hyper-technicalities used to coddle criminals, against the left’s outright hostility toward (rather than neutrality about) all expressions of faith in the public square — including in the Pledge of Allegiance. And so on: Conservative jurisprudential results, on most issues, tend to be popular.
Of course, conservative jurists aren’t supposed to be results-oriented. Nevertheless, a conservative adherence to the actual language of the Constitution and statutes, and where discernible to the original intent thereof, tends overwhelmingly toward conservative “results” as well. Even better, the public tends to agree that the words of the Constitution should be interpreted to mean what they say, and that judges ought to defer to plain meanings rather than invent new ones.
In short, a public and principled battle about appeals court judges could only help, not hurt, Bush’s popularity and his legacy.
Finally (for now), Bush should address public unhappiness about high energy costs (4). The truth is that the economy for three solid years has been spectacularly good overall (low unemployment, low inflation, low interest rates, solid wage growth, high levels of home ownership, etc.) — but that public majorities won’t recognize the strong economy as long as the billboards at gas stations give them bad news. Even worse is that food prices recently have been rising as well. The two problems are connected. Bush ought to admit a mistake in the too-rapid move, mandated by the feds, to corn-based ethanol. He ought to appeal to Americans’ desire for self-sufficiency by pushing for limited demonstration projects of exploration in Alaska and off the coast of Virginia. He ought to jawbone oil companies to keep their prices down. And, for relief long-term, he ought to use every tool at his disposal to encourage the construction of new refineries.
In other words, President Bush ought to be seen as fighting for the American consumer against exorbitant energy prices.
There. That’s enough for now. The problem of Iraq — on which President Bush’s ultimate aims are both practical and profoundly moral — remains (to be addressed in a future column). What’s important to understand is that political coalitions and political popularity can be rebuilt just as steadily as they have been forfeited, and that no presidency with more than 18 months remaining in it ought to be seen as a politically dead one. At this time in President Reagan’s second term, he too was seen as a spent political force. But the very next year, his party was re-elected to the presidency; and twenty years later, we still marvel at Reagan’s accomplishments both pre- and post- the doldrums of 1987.
If Bush will be humble enough and brave enough to improve his own performance…well, then, let the comeback proceed.