There was a bit of a discussion again last week about the extent to which George W. Bush was able to get things that he wanted out of Congress.

There’s more to it than that, however. It’s a mistake to think of everything that presidents wind up supporting as their initiative, or that Congress is the only alternative to presidential rule. Take, for example, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell under Bill Clinton. In the end, Clinton wound up publicly supporting DADT. But his original preference was repealing the ban entirely. What happened? He was rolled, to some extent by Congress (and specifically Sam Nunn), but more importantly by the Pentagon.

So, on Bush. I’ve given my read of Bush as president before; I suspect that the more that we learn, the more we’ll confirm he was essentially passive and indifferent on most things. Was the Patriot Act a Bush policy? I admit that I haven’t read everything that is known about it, but my impression is that it wasn’t at all a Bush policy; it was a policy supported more or less forever by various executive branch agencies who used the September 11 attacks to roll Congress…and George W. Bush. Similarly, even something as central to the Bush presidency as Iraq is hard to judge. Was it Bush’s policy? Cheney’s? A faction within the party?

Of course, the same sorts of things can be done with respect to the president and Congress. Certainly, the 2001 tax bill was Bush’s — he campaigned for it, and asked Congress for it. But virtually every Republican in Congress also campaigned on it, too. It’s just as much theirs as his, no? Disentangling those sorts of things isn’t easy at all, it seems to me. But at least with Congress and the president, we get to see a lot of what’s happening; within the executive branch, we often don’t, at least not for a while.

An overly influential Pentagon, say, is just a very different situation than an overly influential president. Just because the president announces a policy doesn’t mean that he got his way.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.