Singles and Doubles
Andrew E. Busch
January 1, 2006
It is now clear that George W. Bush has weathered the storms of 2005 and is in an upward swing. After bottoming out with approval ratings in the high 30s, he is now back to the mid to high 40s in a number of recent polls. There are four possible reasons, which are not mutually exclusive.
First, the flow of bad news that swamped Bush in the last half of 2005 has abated. One might have expected some recovery by Bush due to nothing more than the fading novelty of Cindy Sheehan and fading memories of Katrina.
Second, in a related vein, good news has helped Bush. The Iraqi elections were impressive, and gas prices have fallen. The economy has continued to flourish despite natural disasters and fuel costs.
Third, Bush has gone on the offensive on Iraq and, to a lesser extent, the economy. His arguments have been sharper and more focused, as well as more human. His willingness to concede something to his opponents struck a blow against one of his greatest weaknesses—the impression shared by many in the public that Bush is stubborn (in a bad way), too sure of himself, and prone to speak in assertions rather than arguments.
Finally, those opponents have done Bush’s work for him by once again showing themselves as simultaneously defeatist and hysterical, more worried about the President of the United States than about the nation’s enemies. Thanks to Jack Murtha, Nancy Pelosi, and the MoveOn.Org crowd, Bush and Republicans now have an opportunity to present themselves against a real—and not very attractive—alternative. It may not yet have dawned on liberals that most Americans are not going to get exercised about a program to eavesdrop on international conversations between people in America and al Qaeda operatives calling from Islamabad.
Which of these factors has been most important to Bush’s recovery is difficult to say. They have almost surely all contributed.
The question is where to go from here. Bush’s recovery thus far leaves him with little margin for error. And presumably he does not want to finish the last three years of his presidency with 45 percent approval. If his late 2005 recovery is to mean anything, it must serve as a platform for something better.
About two months ago, an unnamed Republican congressional leader remarked that Bush needed to stop trying to hit home runs—like Social Security reform—and start hitting singles and doubles. Recently, an administration official repeated the analogy. Fittingly for this president, it is a baseball analogy, and what it means is that Bush needs to concentrate on a series of modest but important steps rather than expending his energy on earth-shattering reforms that may be beyond his reach. In this respect, Bill Clinton’s road back after 1995 serves as something of a model. Bush doubtless will (and should) resist making puny symbolic gestures a substitute for policy, but (to borrow an analogy from another sport) there is plenty of room to run between school uniforms and revamping Social Security.
So what could these singles and doubles look like? They should fall under the three themes of security, prosperity, and progress.
- Extend the PATRIOT Act as approved by the House, or as close to that version as possible. This should be (and indeed, given the short extension approved last month, must be) one of the first orders of business.
- Send to Congress a bill to clarify and codify the President’s rights under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The downside is that such a step could be interpreted as somehow conceding that the NSA surveillance program was inappropriate. There is no reason, however, that Bush cannot hold to his original position—that he already has authority—but present the bill as a concession to the concerns of honorable Americans who fear undefined executive power. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus on his own authority, but then subsequently asked Congress for approval (which it gave). Locke himself spoke of “executive prerogative,” or the right of the executive to act in emergency situations for the survival of the commonwealth, but made clear that the executive should then seek consent of the legislature. If there is a question about legality, answer it with a law. Make Democrats vote on it.
- Continue the full court press on Iraq. If circumstances permit, draw down troops. Some analysts say a troop reduction of 50,000 might be possible by year’s end. That much should be plenty to show Americans that Iraq is not an endless struggle; 30,000 may be enough for that.
- Recognize that immigration revisions are not going to happen as long as concerns swirl around border security. Efforts in Congress to tighten the border are not the enemy of Bush’s guest worker program; they are a political prerequisite for it, and ought to be a policy prerequisite. Bush would eliminate a gaping vulnerability among conservative-leaning independents by admitting this, tackling border security first, and using it as a starting point to move toward a guest worker program later in the year.
- Making the tax cuts permanent should be the first item on Bush’s domestic economic agenda. If it cannot be done all at once, he should move them piece by piece. An election year like 2006 is a good time to do so. Indeed, a debate over making the tax cuts permanent can be the occasion for some public education on the effects for average families if tax rates revert to their 2000 levels. Middle income voters who have heard nothing for five years but “George Bush’s tax giveaway to the rich” may be surprised to find out just how much they have saved. The debate will also give Bush a natural opportunity to tout the strength of the economy.
- Spending restraint should become a priority, and Bush should not hesitate to veto appropriations bills that are out of control. This would also shore him up with many independents and some Republicans who have soured on him due to his failure to control domestic spending. Immigration and spending are Bush’s great weaknesses among that species once known as “Perot voters,” now nameless but nevertheless a significant bloc.
- Taking a page from Bill Clinton in 1996, Bush should back away from massive Social Security reform but without giving up the fight entirely. After being whipped on universal health care, Clinton pushed a number of more incremental steps—legislation guaranteeing insurance portability, allowing people to retain coverage despite preexisting conditions, and creating a new health care program for children. Perhaps Bush should step back, say “I tried too much at once,” and endorse a number of smaller steps that will improve the program’s long term position. His goal now should be to limit future liabilities and to encourage greater private savings.
- Keep pushing for ANWR, but add a twist if the votes still aren’t there: tie new drilling to a slowly phased-in increase in federal mileage standards for vehicles, including SUVs. This is not a natural stance for an old oil-man, but that is what makes it so delicious. It is—and will seem to most Americans—a perfectly reasonable compromise. Given the general increase in gas prices since 1999, and the consequent increasing concern with gas mileage by consumers, it is a step the automakers will likely be taking anyway. If Bush is out front, he will gain points for trying to break out of the partisan stalemate, though he will incur some risk for Republicans in auto states like Ohio and Indiana. If he wants to minimize his risk, he will quietly encourage red-state Democrats to put it forward, and will get behind it.
- Continue pushing for solid conservative judges. Wring every last advantage out of the deal wrought by the Gang of 14. And don’t ignore the Constitution in day-to-day presidential discourse. It is not merely a talisman to be brought out when court appointments are to be made. Principles like federalism and limited government used to give moral heft to conservative policies; Bush might find that they would do the same today.
- Put together packages to refine and improve previous policy innovations. In particular, the No Child Left Behind Act and the Medicare prescription drug program were advocated by Bush, despite their big government character, on the grounds that they could serve as a lever for conservatives to insert greater accountability and choice. However, in the initial legislation, it is not clear that Bush got even half a loaf of what he wanted. Some of his singles and doubles in 2006 might be devoted to getting his half a loaf or more where he has already made a start.
With discipline and focus, Bush can hit quite a few singles and doubles in 2006. He might even score some runs. And it is important that he do so. If he loses control of one or both houses of Congress in 2006—possible, though not probable—his domestic presidency will be largely over. Republicans in Congress needs some runs, too, to avoid that fate. If Bush makes progress, and if events do not betray him, there is little reason to expect anything but a wash in the 2006 elections. Indeed, if Democrats make a big mistake—for instance, getting on the “impeach Bush” bandwagon—Republicans could turn history on its head again and make modest gains. Of course, events will be the big question: events in Iraq, where all attention is focused, and events in next-door Iran, where attention must soon be focused. In the land of the mullahs, we may soon be facing a full count with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, down by three.
Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.