Yet for those of us who served in the early Clinton White House, the little ways the Bush administration has tried so hard to look different are less striking than the one big way it looks familiar. A Southern governor with lots of charm but an uncertain mandate wins the presidency by promising to take his party in a new direction. Then his administration spends its first months doing everything in its power to assure his party he didn’t mean it.
The Bush White House, justifiably proud of its discipline, no doubt considers it a victory to get this far without a scandal like Travelgate, a distraction like gays in the military, or a domestic crisis like Waco. Though Bush lost one cabinet nominee over a domestic worker whose papers weren’t in order, Clinton lost two.
But what nearly killed the Clinton administration in the cradle was not indiscipline and inexperience (although we had plenty of both). On the contrary, what hurt us most was that we did everything the voices of experience in Washington advised. We rushed bills that couldn’t pass but congressional Democrats wanted, such as the economic “stimulus package” which gave obstructionist Republicans their first victory. We delayed bills like campaign-finance reform and welfare reform, which Clinton had promised to pass but Hill leaders didn’t want. Instead of setting out to command a broad bipartisan majority across the country, we settled for a narrow, shrinking majority of our own Democratic ranks. The American people, who had hoped for better, took us to the woodshed in the 1994 elections.
One might have expected George W. Bush, whose political career got off the ground in the 1994 election, to recall that object lesson. After all, not even the Supreme Court could have elected Bush president if he hadn’t run as a different kind of Republican out to change the tone in Washington.
Alas, it seems that some things never change. If the Bush team was ever sincere about putting country before party, it didn’t take long to revert to form. On the defining issues so far—tax cuts, the budget, the environment, campaign reform—the man who promised to “trust the people” has deferred to his partisan base in Washington every time. Even as Bush has labored mightily not to make any of Clinton’s early mistakes, he may be making the most important one of all.
Why don’t new administrations know what’s good for them? What kind of pressure could take an administration from promising to “leave no child behind” one day to easing arsenic standards the next?
As I watch this new administration hatch, I feel some sympathy for the Bush team. Through eight years of ups and downs, I loved every day I spent in the Clinton-Gore White House. But I loved those first 100 the least.
Nonetheless, I see the Bush administration sliding down a familiar slope that, if not reversed, could have dire consequences for them and for the country. We learned our lesson and found our bearings, and so can they. But so far, this White House seems more proud than worried about its course.
Early in an administration, the party in power thinks it is the center of the universe, let alone the country. In the glow of victory, every idea suddenly looks like a winner, every dream within reach. From the think tanks around town, wonks who have toiled for decades in darkness emerge to spread the dust of ancient policy schemes through administrations.
After 12 years in the wilderness, the early days of the Clinton administration were a mad land rush for Democrats. Clinton signed five executive orders on abortion in his first day. The economic stimulus package was prepared in such a hurry that agencies didn’t have time to design a targeted plan to create jobs, so they simply accelerated funding of their favorite spending programs. “I was appalled by some of the stuff in there,” Clinton said, after even Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WVa.), who knows a little about pork, complained to the president about handouts in the package.
The first months of a new administration are a constant tug of war for the heart and soul of the president. Every issue straddled during the campaign that has to be settled, every key post to be filled, and every scrap of ungrabbed bureaucratic turf can tip the balance.
In 1993, campaign aides who had helped Bill Clinton and Al Gore get elected watched in dismay as non-believers from interest groups and the Hill got the jobs they wanted. “I knew campaign experience would be important,” said one unemployed friend who had knocked on doors for Clinton in New Hampshire. “I just didn’t know it would be the Dukakis campaign.”
Clinton had headquartered his campaign in Little Rock so it wouldn’t become a prisoner of Beltway thinking. But his White House had no place to hide. Congressional staffers who had openly scorned Clinton in the primaries used their bosses to foist them on the new administration. Capitol Hill insiders like George Stephanopoulos built empires of political appointees whose loyalty would not be to the president or vice president, but to the person who got them in the door. Once inside, the underlings built little empires of their own.
The first imperative for these little emperors was to close ranks against campaign veterans and true believers, whose insurgent ideas and longer ties with Clinton threatened the new arrivals’ power. John Kroger spent a year as the campaign’s deputy policy director and most persistent New Democrat, in charge of saying no whenever interest groups demanded promises Clinton couldn’t keep. After Clinton won, the people Kroger had said no to managed to blackball him from the White House. He ended up in a remote corner of Treasury, lost interest, and left for law school.
Bill Clinton was as frustrated as the rest of us. He couldn’t understand why so few people around him understood what he wanted to accomplish, or why so many people he had appointed to agencies dragged their heels. When the personnel office recommended someone on the grounds that he had been “a delegate at the 92 convention,” Clinton wrote back, “For whom?”
Often, when Clinton bucked the party consensus, he couldn’t get his own staff to go along. We soon learned that winning the president’s support for an idea was only 10 percent of the battle, because others were determined to change his mind—or worse, to move their policies without him altogether. In 1993, Michael Waldman, who spearheaded the White House efforts on political reform, and I found ourselves at war over lobbying reform with congressional liaison Howard Paster. The president had publicly praised the Senate for voting overwhelmingly to limit gifts to members of Congress. But Paster refused to let us describe that as the official administration position. “That may be the president’s personal view, but the decision should be left to members of Congress,” Paster said. At one low moment, Waldman and I found ourselves drafting a memo to the president asking him whether his public support for a gift ban meant his administration was for it.
Throughout the agencies, appointees who weren’t comfortable with the direction of Clinton’s campaign set out to undo some of the promises that helped elect him. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen and Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director Alice Rivlin successfully argued not to fund welfare reform in Clinton’s first budget, virtually dooming any chance of passing a welfare bill before the 1994 elections.
Even Sen. Moynihan (D-NY), our most persistent Democratic critic, felt our pain. “I understand. I once worked in an administration,” he told me in a welfare reform meeting on our 100th day. “The president is for it, but his government isn’t.”
On my wall in the Old Executive Office Building, I kept a giant poster of Clinton’s campaign promises. After yet another news report about White House waffling, a colleague saw the list and said, “It looks like the portrait of Dorian Gray.”
Now it’s Bush’s turn. As a candidate, Bush ran as a new kind of Republican, a “reformer” who would seek bipartisan solutions and not be afraid to break with his own party. Those of us working on the other side tried to point out that Bush’s supposed moderation was more rhetorical than substantive. But our case was undermined by the fact that Bush did make a few campaign promises that sounded genuinely new for a Republican, such as his pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Once in office, however, the skin-deep nature of Bush’s moderation became apparent. His administration has caved in to the Washington pressures of partisanship and special-interest pleading even faster and with greater damage than Clinton’s. When Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman had the temerity to suggest Bush would honor his pledge on carbon dioxide, the administration did cartwheels to get out of it. Bush said that he was changing his mind because of “important new information,” which turned out to be a report by far-right former Rep. David McIntosh warning of big costs to business.
For good measure, Bush announced that the United States would walk away from the Kyoto protocol on global warming. Then Vice President Cheney stepped forward with the administration’s preferred response to global warming: nuclear power. No one should be surprised that an administration headed by two former oil industry executives wants to ignore global warming. But it’s a testament to the power of party interests that they would fess up to it before Earth Day.
Most reform-minded Republicans supported John McCain in the primaries and haven’t been welcome in Bush country since. Instead, Bush has filled the ranks of the White House Counsel’s office and the Justice Department with members of the Federalist Society, the network of conservative lawyers who brought us the Paula Jones lawsuit, the Starr investigation, and the tone Bush promised to change in Washington. Genuine New Republicans, like Bush’s chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, must wonder how long compassionate conservatism can survive the very people it was designed to make America forget. Indeed, for those who hoped that Bush would switch from aggression to appeasement after Florida, the Ashcroft nomination felt like Munich.
In Clinton’s White House, most staffers were young enough to be Donald Rumsfeld’s grandchildren. I felt like an elder statesman at age 33. In one of many White House shuffles, Chief of Staff Mack McLarty put one deputy in charge of long-term planning and the other in charge of short-term planning, but no one could remember which was which.
The Bush White House is boot camp by comparison. I chuckled when one of Andrew Card’s first acts as chief of staff was to ban jeans in the Oval Office, a far bigger sacrifice for Bush’s Austin crowd than it would have been for us. We could have scored cheap PR points, too, if we had banned jogging shorts in public.
But such discipline can be fertile ground for zeal. The same pent-up hunger that made Republicans determined to win the election at all costs makes it harder for them to put off any part of their agenda. And the same House staffers who stormed the canvassing board to stop the recount in Miami-Dade are now storming into the administration.
The rational approach for a president who came in second in the popular vote and faced an evenly divided Senate would have been to reach across party lines and make the modest concessions needed to secure a broad bipartisan win early. That’s how the Bush administration has handled education reform, negotiating directly with Senate Democrats and Republicans. But education is the exception. Look at how he has approached his top priority, a $1.6 trillion tax cut. Surely the Bush team knew that most Americans wanted a smaller tax cut, that most Democrats would embrace a sizable one, and that holding out for $1.6 trillion only ensured that anything less would be seen as a partial defeat.
But Bush approached the tax cut the way James Baker approached the Florida recount: Why look for common ground if there’s a chance to win a one-vote majority?
One scene in March captured what’s wrong with the Bush strategy. The Republican leadership had just rammed the Bush tax cut through the House on a party-line vote, deeply alienating moderate and conservative Democrats who would have been eager to sign onto a substantial compromise. Bush staged a conference call, with Reps. Dennis Hastert, Dick Armey, and Tom DeLay, from Fargo, N.D. where he was campaigning to pressure two Democratic senators to support the tax cut. “I’m glad we moved it the way we did,” Bush said.
A year earlier, as a candidate, Bush had shrewdly distanced himself from House Republican leaders, winning headlines for criticizing cuts in the Earned Income Tax Credit. Now, as president, he was not only high-fiving those same Republican leaders for what they had done, but taking credit for the partisan way in which they had done it.
That scene got scant press attention, but it stuck in my mind because I had seen its like before. In the 1992 campaign, no voter could confuse Bill Clinton and the Democratic Congress. “No more midnight pay raises. No more bounced checks,” he said the month he announced his candidacy. “Service in Congress is privilege enough.” A decade of partisan bickering had soured the country on Washington. Clinton pledged to move beyond “the brain-dead politics of both parties” and challenged Congress that “responsibility is for everybody, and it begins here in the nation’s capital.” The American people agreed, and gave the two reform-minded candidates—Clinton and Perot—62 percent of the vote on Election Day.
Yet two weeks later, Clinton found himself meeting with Sen. George Mitchell and Speaker Tom Foley at the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, letting them talk him out of insisting they cut their staffs or change the way they do business. The native guides Clinton had hired to show him the ways of Washington, including George Stephanopoulos and congressional liaison Howard Paster, wanted him to have better relations with Capitol Hill than Jimmy Carter. Instead, he got headlines like one in the The Wall Street Journal: “Clinton Bends Under Pressure from Congress.”
The scene repeated itself, like “Groundhog Day,” throughout our first two years in office. In December 1993, Foley warned the president not to press welfare reform until after health care. In early 1994, the leadership pleaded with the president not to make the House rush to pass a comprehensive crime bill.
In a particularly revealing moment—appropriately, on Groundhog Day in 1993—Foley warned the president not to pursue both campaign-finance reform and lobbying reform. “Members will think you’re out to take away their current livelihoods and their future livelihoods in one fell swoop,” he said.
In each case, the leadership’s advice was heartfelt, well meaning, an accurate reflection of the Democratic caucus—and the wrong course for the president. The new president and the congressional leadership liked and needed one another. On some issues, they made remarkable progress together, including the centrist, landmark economic plan they enacted in 1993 without a single Republican vote. But Clinton and Democratic leaders also learned the hard way that, although their fortunes were linked, their interests were not always the same. Halfway through his term, Clinton complained that he felt lashed to Congress “like Ahab to Moby Dick, with the same results.”
What Clinton learned, and Bush needs to, is that the president’s job is to lead the country, not to lead his party in Congress. Time and again in those first two years, we made our case to the center of the Democratic caucus instead of the broad center of the country—which, as we found out, was in a much different place. Bush seems to have the same flaw in his compass. Karl Rove, Bush’s political mastermind, told Dana Milbank of The Washington Post that any strategy that’s good for the Republican Party is good for the country. “They’re the same thing,” Rove said.
If anything, the famed Bush discipline may make it harder to get the Republican Party back in synch with the country. Take the president’s new commission on Social Security. On the surface, the commission appears to be bipartisan, with seven members from each party and former Sen. Moynihan as co-chair. But on the central issue that divides Democrats and Republicans, partially privatizing Social Security, all 16 members of the commission were hand-picked because they already agree with Bush. Press secretary Ari Fleischer said the commission will “of course be comprised of people who share the president’s view that personal retirement accounts are the way to save Social Security.”
The White House no doubt hopes a stacked commission will give Bush bipartisan cover. But trying to impose a consensus where none exists will only make enacting reform harder. As Moynihan himself said during the debate on Clinton’s health plan, it’s impossible to make basic changes in the nation’s safety net without broad majorities from both parties.
There are some signs the Bush team is learning. After weeks of rubber-stamping industry requests to overturn Clinton administration stands against global warming, arsenic in drinking water, and ergonomic workplace injuries, the Bush White House finally slowed down after and decided that one rule could stand: Yes, the government could test for salmonella in school lunches. Now the Bush administration is careful to review and delay key rules rather than reverse them. Perhaps they’ve learned their lesson, or perhaps they’re just holding off on special-interest favors for now to show business what life will be like if Congress passes a ban on soft money.
But wishful thinking is always the last to go. I remember some senior White House aides still arguing for delaying welfare reform in November 1994, just days before we lost the Congress.
The real test for any young administration is not how it starts, but where it’s headed. To his everlasting credit, Clinton was never afraid to take on the tough battles. His administration struggled early in part because he refused to duck the hardest issues—reducing a record budget deficit, striving to provide access to health care for all, confronting the gun lobby and some in his party to pass a sweeping crime bill. He made sure we learned from our mistakes: it’s hard to name a president who pulled off a more dramatic mid-term recovery.
So far, Bush has reaped the benefit of low expectations, but like his father, he may pay a price for low ambitions. If Clinton hadn’t stepped up to lead his party instead of please it, he would have had far less to show for his years in office—and fewer years. He challenged and eventually transformed Democratic orthodoxy on deficit reduction, crime, accountability in schools, and welfare reform.
For all his talk of reform, Bush seems utterly unwilling to take on the conservative blind spots of his party. He just wants to spruce up the party image. Bush was able to get elected—just barely—by suggesting that the Republican Party was no longer against education, immigrants, or reaching out to minorities. In contrast to his party’s real reformer, John McCain, Bush has never challenged Republicans’ deepest self-delusions on campaign reform, guns, or supply-side economics.
In the end, that could prove to be the greatest mistake Bush is making: He can’t change the tone in Washington if he’s not willing to change his party. He went native a long time ago.
Of course, as we found out, the American people have a way of making sure their leaders learn these lessons, one way or another. Once again, the bar is lower for Bush: We managed to lose 53 House seats in the 1994 elections. He need only lose half a dozen seats to lose the Congress.