The Washington Times
President Bush had a good week politically, coming off of a couple of bad weeks. In itself, this serves as a useful illustration of the ebb-and-flow character of Washington politics. When Mr. Bush (or any president) is riding high, his supporters tend to think this is the natural condition of things, and when he’s stumbling, his opponents think they’re one step away from permanent victory. Neither is the case.
Mr. Bush’s job approval rating suffered a downtick a month or so ago, and for some Democrats, this signaled that at last the honeymoon was over and people had his number. But more recently, his approval rating scored an equal and opposite uptick. It would make no more sense to conclude that his troubles are over than it did to conclude that he was going down for the count. In either case, the movement may be more apparent than real.
But neither is the good-week, bad-week cycle entirely a matter of random fluctuation. There is a pattern to what has been happening in past months.
Undeniably, Mr. Bush had a good first couple of months in office. This seemed especially noteworthy given the rancor over Florida, and for some members of the press, it set them to scratching their heads, wondering if they were being too easy on Mr. Bush, and if so, why.
I have written here previously that in retrospect, at least, the answer is obvious. Mr. Bush’s press got substantially more sour when Sen. Jim Jeffords left the GOP, giving Democrats control of the Senate. There was a specific reason for that: For the first time in Mr. Bush’s Washington, Democrats had a power base || the Senate || from which to mount a sustained political attack on Mr. Bush.
Before the Jeffords defection, the story at the top of the news was how well the GOP-controlled White House was faring with the GOP-controlled Congress in moving ahead with Mr. Bush’s legislative priorities. And if that’s the question, the answer had to be “pretty well.” To be sure, Democrats by and large opposed the Bush agenda. But they did not have the power to defeat it, or even to diminish its momentum by changing the subject || that is, by forcing issues more congenial to the advancement of their cause onto the agenda for consideration.
Now, had Mr. Bush and the GOP Congress failed to work together so well, that would have been a very different story || one perhaps more reminiscent of the troubles that beset Bill Clinton’s first two years, when Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress but couldn’t work together. As it was, the coverage of the early Bush administration reflected not some hitherto-undetected pro-GOP bias in the media but the simple fact that the Bush agenda was marching forward.
With Democrats in control of the Senate, however, all of a sudden there really was a competing story line with genuine political power to back it up. And in several policy areas || from campaign finance to HMOs – the majority of all senators, Republican and Democrat, in combination with a Democratic Senate leadership, had ideas very different from those of the White House.
It’s enough to give a president a bad couple of weeks, or worse. So what happened recently that gave Mr. Bush a good week? Simply, the political action in Washington shifted back to the House, where the GOP majority (which is very narrow and accordingly unstable on any number of issues) managed to hang together on issues of major importance to the White House (HMOs, energy).
Events need not have played out in this fashion. On the contrary, had there been even a small amount of aisle-crossing by Republicans, the result would have been another bad week for Mr. Bush. It’s a tribute to the often dubiously-maligned political skills of the GOP House leadership that they were able to frame a final vote on energy legislation that included drilling in Alaska and passed with 36 Democratic votes.
Lose a few, win a few. Every now and then, something happens that really affects the power balance in Washington. The GOP loss of the Senate was such an occurrence. But even that doesn’t leave the White House helpless – just in a position where it’s better off with attention focused on the House.
As matters stand, this White House is still in a position to define political success in terms of getting legislation through Congress that the president can sign. For better or worse, that’s a positive agenda. It may change, in which case a more complicated political task arises for the White House: turning legislative defeat into political victory. But Mr. Bush isn’t there yet. He’s still going forward, but not without ebb along with the flow.