President Bush has several strengths, but negotiating with Congress isn’t one of them. He wants to come across as the Goldilocks president. As he said in 2001, “Some say my tax plan is too big. Others say it’s too small. I respectfully disagree. This plan is just right.”
Many things about Bush’s plan weren’t ideal but his “just right” proposal was not the one enacted. Led by then-Senator Tom Daschle, the Senate Democrats managed to pare down the size of the tax cuts and delay their implementation, just as economic turbulence and September 11 made economic stimulus seem like a really good idea. Only the gains Republicans made in Congress in 2002 kept tax policy from swinging back in the other direction.
However, the president didn’t fare much better with his own party firmly in control of both houses of Congress. He had modest successes on some things about which the vast majority of Republican voters agree, such as taxes. But on other issues he clearly flopped.
Bush’s half-hearted attempts to control spending have been laughable. The financial hit of September 11 temporarily reversed government surpluses but increases in both defense and domestic spending brought back dreaded structural deficits.
Americans hate deficits and the president could have appealed to this revulsion to get Congress to spend less. By vetoing a few bills, he would have told Congress he was serious about spending — and told the American people he was willing to stand up to big spenders, regardless of party.
Instead, Bush tried to talk Congress into spending what he considered the “just right” amount, and then signed every huge spending bill that crossed his desk. That sent a signal to those congressmen who would otherwise worry about deficits: If there wasn’t going to be any restraint, they’d be suckers if they didn’t try to lard every bill that passed through their committees with more spending for their districts and states.
Bush’s refusal to veto helped doom Social Security reform. Any would-be reformer needed to convince both Congress and the public that he had the nation’s long-term financial interest in mind. But the president had only encouraged Congress to spend, spend, spend and had never given the American people reason to trust him with the government purse.
It’s possible that Bush could have overcome this but his strategy was all wrong. He again refused to push the envelope, preferring to use his modest outline of Social Security reform — in which people could set aside a small percent of payroll taxes every year into privately controlled but highly regulated accounts — as the reasonable mean between the two extremes of more of the same and outright privatization.
It didn’t work. The Democrats accused Bush of endangering the retirements of millions of Americans and the charge exacted a political toll. Republicans saw the popularity of reform plummet and said “Never mind,” leaving it to a future Congress to deal with the system’s looming insolvency.
Now, with new Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress looking to repeal some of his tax cuts and roll back other initiatives, the president is again making all the wrong noises. On a federal minimum wage hike, he says that the current Democratic proposal is too comprehensive. However, if they allow a few exemptions for small business, it’ll be just right.
If the president wants to salvage a domestic legacy, he may want to stop Bushing the envelope and start pushing it. Ronald Reagan, the last two-term Republican president, managed to cut taxes and slow government growth. Reagan worked with Democrats when he could but he also argued publicly with them, ridiculed their bad ideas, appealed directly to the American people for support, and he vetoed a lot of bills. That recourse is still available to President Bush.