The Washington Times

One of the things that has vexed many Democrats since January is how easy a time the new Bush administration was having with the press. Indeed, some members of the press themselves were vexed about the generally favorable coverage they perceived they were giving the new administration. In one memorable Outlook piece, a reporter for the Washington Post contrasted Mr. Bush’s first 100 days with his recollection of Bill Clinton’s in 1993, reaching the conclusion that the problem Mr. Clinton faced that Mr. Bush did not was a determined and well-organized political opposition || the precursor, as it were, of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” Hillary Clinton would denounce six years later.

This is utterly baffling to most Republicans. In the first place, the idea that they might be swimming with the media current, as opposed to against it, is nearly unimaginable, based on previous experience. In the second place, they point to any number of instances (many over the environment) in which Mr. Bush took unfair lumps from the media. Finally, when pressed, they lay the credit for Mr. Bush’s favorable coverage squarely on the shoulders of the president himself: a case of the inability of even the naturally unsympathetic media to call competence and determination in pursuit of an agenda by other, nastier names.

Same planet, different worlds – partisan perception as usual in Washington. Let me see if I can bridge this gap.

First of all, the political macro-competence of the Bush administration is indeed part of the story. This was all the more apparent because of the contrast with instances of micro-incompetence. To the extent that Democrats made headway in developing a case against the Bush administration in the early days, it was because the Bush administration itself laid the predicate for the Democrats’ case. If Americans see the administration as doing the bidding of big business today and as insensitive or worse on the environment, part of the blame must rest with a series of decisions on regulations, major and minor, made at the same time that virtually all the administration’s attention was focused on its marquee initiatives: tax cuts, education reform, missile defense.

Now, the contrast with 1993 is indeed instructive – as are the similarities. I was on the ramparts in ideological opposition in 1993, and the idea that we were somehow driving the early negative coverage of Mr. Clinton is just wrong. From election day 1992, Republicans and conservatives were by and large bitter and despondent in acute awareness of their powerlessness and irrelevance, as Democrats exalted in their possession of the White House and Congress. I remember attending a panel discussion in a charmless lower-level conference room of a dreary downtown Washington hotel sponsored by William Kristol’s Project for the Republican Future. Richard Darman, the first Bush administration’s budget guru, was explaining why, complaints from conservatives notwithstanding, the 1990 budget deal in which Mr. Bush pere broke his “no new taxes” pledge was, in fact, a good idea. I remember thinking, “If that was such a good idea, then why are we sitting here in this basement?”

No, Mr. Clinton was driving Mr. Clinton’s early negative coverage, as well as the positive coverage. Once again, it was a series of political miscues by the new administration that brought on the troubles, starting with the early decision to focus on gays in the military (where the reaction of the military itself and of Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn were critical, not the supporting chorus from Mr. Clinton’s opposition). Next came a series of troubles over executive branch nominees (troubles notwithstanding the Democratic Senate majority). Finally, Mr. Clinton was singularly uninterested in pursuing GOP support on Capitol Hill for his legislative initiatives, thus depriving him of the bipartisan veneer George W. Bush enjoys today. The real-world consequence of the absence of bipartisanship is to unify and amplify the voice of the opposition party.

As Mr. Clinton was doing this damage to himself, I remember thinking, “This is not so bad,” meaning we (the opposition) might be down, sitting there in the basement, but we were not completely out. Even so, the forces driving the news were the Clinton administration and the Democratic Congress, even if the news was how bad relations were between the two and how much trouble Hillary Clinton’s health care reform plan was in. The Republican opposition would not really achieve agenda-setting power of its own until the 1994 election gave the GOP control of Congress.

And here, too, is a parallel. The essential fact of the first months of the Bush administration is that the GOP held the White House and Congress (however tenuously in the Senate). As in 1993, the congressional opposition accordingly had little agenda-setting power – that is, the ability to create political facts that compel a response, in this case from the White House. Democrats in early 2001 simply lacked power in the form of an institutional base from which to drive a message.

That, of course, was then. Now Democrats have the Senate. Accordingly, they have a competing institutional base. And it’s no surprise that the story of the Democrats’ very act of acquiring it – Jim Jeffords’ departure from the GOP- turned out to be the most politically damaging story Mr. Bush has yet faced. The test of the skill of Senate Democrats is whether it’s only the first such politically damaging story.