BUSH PRESIDENCY HAS DEEPENED RIFTS BETWEEN POLITICAL PARTIES, AUTHOR SAYS
COLUMBUS, Ohio – President George W. Bush’s first term has been the story of a leader who has reinforced party warfare even as he has preached moderation and cooperation, according to the editor of a new book on the Bush presidency.
While Bush came into office saying he wanted to work toward national cohesion and political civility, he has done nothing to impede the growth of party polarization, said Bert Rockman, a professor of public policy and management at Ohio State University and former president of the American Political Science Association’s Organized Section on Presidency Research.
“He came into office saying that he would be one kind of president and has very much been another,” Rockman said. “He has worked hard to push his agenda without necessarily looking for compromise.”
Rockman is co-editor, with Colin Campbell of the University of British Columbia, of the new book The George W. Bush Presidency: Appraisals and Prospects (CQ Press). He also wrote an overview chapter examining Bush’s term in office.
In his chapter, Rockman argued that the current political landscape has been especially important in determining the course of Bush’s presidency. This context is crucial in determining how his term has unfolded, he said.
One of the most important elements of this context has been the sharp polarization between the Democratic and Republican parties, according to Rockman. The parties have attacked each other relentlessly, in part because the balance of power between the two parties has been so close and, in part, because they have so little in common.
The disputed presidential election in 2000 only exacerbated the intense partisanship, Rockman said. Aware of the deep divisions the election caused among Americans, Bush came into office promising to heal the wounds. In one speech after the election, Bush said “I am optimistic that we can change the tone in Washington, D.C.…I know America wants reconciliation and unity. I know Americans want progress. And we must seize this moment and deliver.”
However, Rockman said, Bush almost immediately went to work on a strongly conservative agenda that encouraged further divisions. He said Bush pushed hard on his monumental tax cut proposal, fostered an anti-labor tilt to his administration, fought to open up wilderness lands for energy exploration, and took an aggressive unilateralism in international affairs.
“Given the very tight, very disputed election, an election with
a lot of ill feelings, many people thought Bush would be a president of
moderation in tone and temperament,” Rockman said.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 provided another opportunity for Bush to seek national unity, Rockman said. However, after a very short period of political calm, the Bush administration was perceived by Democrats as manipulating fear and concern about the terrorist attacks as a way to advance its political agenda and its party’s prospects in the 2002 elections. The result was more polarization, Rockman said.
“Bush had two real opportunities to be a president of reconciliation
– just after the disputed election and after the terrorist attacks.
In neither case did he take that opportunity,” Rockman said.
“Bush took the path that seemed the most logical and rational for his re-election. He is appealing to the party faithful – the conservatives he feels are the base of his support.
“I think one of the lessons that George W. took away from his father’s failures as president is that his father didn’t tend to the party faithful enough and that is a major reason, in his view, that Bush Sr. was not re-elected.”
One of Bush’s greatest strengths has been his ability to portray himself as a moderate while keeping the more conservative members of his party satisfied, Rockman said.
“It was dubious that Bush II was ever the moderate he allowed others to perceive him as,” Rockman said. “Rather, his political career reflects the culmination of the geographic push of the Republican party southward and westward and its sharpened ideological drive rightward.”
But while his policies might be conservative, Bush’s temperament in leadership has not been conservative at all, Rockman said. In this way, he is the opposite of President Clinton, who liked to discuss options endlessly and consider all possible scenarios. Bush likes to get to the bottom line quickly and has great confidence in his judgments.
“Clinton liked to think about decisions, Bush likes to make them,” he said. “Bush doesn’t fuss a lot over details or consequences.”
The downsides of the leadership styles of Clinton and Bush are very different: Clinton could suffer from paralysis and indecision as he considered all sides of an issue. In Bush’s case, the problems arise from not taking enough time to consider implications and consequences of his decisions. The messy aftermath of the war in Iraq is one example, Rockman said.
Rockman said it is “extraordinary” that a president who won such a narrow, disputed election has been able to push such a partisan agenda during his term in office. While the Democrats had only a slight disadvantage in numbers in Congress, they lacked a strong sense of purpose or resolve that would allow them to effectively challenge Bush’s agenda. The strength of Bush and his administration grew in proportion to the absence of resolve among his Democratic opponents.
The early strength of Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean was largely the result of the disappointment among Democratic activists about the lack of resolve among Democrats in Congress, especially about the war in Iraq, Rockman said. Dean’s quick decline can be seen as a deepened desire among Democrats to find a candidate that they believe is more likely to defeat Bush.
Rockman said Bush’s political strength seems to be waning somewhat now, partly because some events have not gone the way Bush’s partisans would like, and also because of the relentless hammering by the Democratic candidates of the Bush administration’s vulnerabilities during a time when the Democrats, because of their primary contests, have been in the spotlight. He said the Democratic candidates have been effective so far during the campaign season at appealing to their party’s core constituency.
The George W. Bush Presidency is the latest in a series of related volumes looking at recent American presidencies. Other books in the series, which were published by Chatham House, included The Bush Presidency: First Appraisals, The Clinton Presidency: First Appraisals and The Clinton Legacy.