Sunday, October 23, 2005

Like Father, Like Son for Bushes

ABC News
Newsview: Like Father, Like Son for Bushes
Newsview: Bush Has Struggled to Avoid Father's Mistakes but Is Bedeviled by Similar Problems
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Throughout his first term, President Bush struggled to avoid repeating his father's mistakes. Yet less than a year after he claimed the re-election mandate denied his dad, he is confronting some of the same problems that bedeviled the first Bush presidency.

Like father, like son:

Conservatives are rebelling.

His poll numbers are in the basement.

Economic unrest is growing.

Top White House staffers are under fire.

"George W. Bush always wanted to be like Ronald Reagan, rather than like his father," said presidential historian Thomas Cronin of Colorado College.

But it was an aspiration that may have set him up for failure.

"Both Bushes were held to a real and imagined Reagan bar. And when his father broke his promise on 'no new taxes,' he got hit really hard by the right," Cronin said.

Likewise, when the younger Bush nominated Harriet Miers, his former personal lawyer, to the Supreme Court, bypassing experienced jurists with proven conservative credentials, many prominent conservatives balked. He promised them another conservative like Justice Antonin Scalia, but he gave them a mystery. Politicians of all stripes hate uncertainty.

Congressional misgivings over Miers and the CIA leak investigation involving White House advisers have cast a cloud over the administration. Soaring gas prices, hurricane reconstruction costs, the war in Iraq and declining consumer confidence have darkened the economic outlook.

Avoiding his father's path was a first-term mantra for the younger Bush.

Where the father distanced himself from religious conservatives, the son aggressively courted them.

The first Bush built an international coalition and ended the first Gulf War after driving Iraq from Kuwait. The younger Bush ignored international opposition and toppled Saddam Hussein's government.

The father was criticized for lacking an economic program other than "message: I care." The son promised big tax cuts and muscled them through Congress. No one called him a wimp.

But the younger Bush made several miscalculations, some of his Republican critics suggest.

"I think he concluded that as long as he remained loyal to the conservative side on one issue tax cuts he could pretty much do anything he wanted in other areas and the conservatives would stand behind him," said Bruce Bartlett, who was deputy assistant treasury secretary in the first Bush administration.

"And that worked for quite a while. But it was a shortsighted point of view," said Bartlett, who has just written a book, "The Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy."

The selection of Miers, the White House counsel, to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor followed growing conservative unease about other Bush moves: the escalating cost of the Iraq war, Medicare and other government programs; his proposal to liberalize immigration laws; and his pledge to "spend what it takes" and lift New Orleans out of poverty.

"There's a lot of frustration that was bubbling and building up," said Republican consultant Greg Mueller. "And Harriet Miers kind of became the vehicle to channel that frustration, kind of the tipping point in many ways."

Some of the fiercest criticism of the Miers nomination is coming from veterans of the first Bush White House.

Peggy Noonan, a speechwriter for both Reagan and the elder Bush, contended that Miers' nomination is a mistake on par with the father's selection of Dan Quayle for vice president.

Quayle should have said, "Thanks, I'm not ready," Noonan wrote in a Wall Street Journal column, and so should Miers now.

Conservative editor and commentator William Kristol, who was Quayle's chief of staff, said recent White House efforts to convince conservatives that Miers really is one of them "hasn't changed anyone's mind."

Bush "has alienated his base without intending to," said political scientist Bruce Buchanan of the University of Texas. "He was feeling his oats a little bit on the (Chief Justice John) Roberts success and didn't anticipate the fury of the reaction on Harriet Miers."

Both Bushes saw their approval ratings soar above 80 percent the elder Bush in 1991 after the first Gulf War, the younger Bush after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 only to see them plummet.

The elder Bush's ratings dipped under 30 percent in late summer 1992. The current president stood at 39 percent in an AP-Ipsos poll taken two weeks ago, the lowest of his presidency.

The current Bush was criticized that he was slow to recognize the severity of Hurricane Katrina. The first Bush was criticized for being slow to respond to Hurricane Andrew, which slammed into southern Florida on Aug. 24, 1992, and did extensive damage.

The current Bush's White House is distracted by a special prosecutor's inquiry into whether administration officials illegally leaked the name of a CIA operative for political reasons. The investigation appears focused on Bush's top White House adviser, Karl Rove, and Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

In the year before the 1992 presidential election, with his poll numbers tumbling, the elder Bush had a staff that also was in turmoil. John Sununu resigned as chief of staff under a cloud and was replaced by former Transportation Secretary Sam Skinner, who in turn was replaced by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

Of course, the younger Bush's timing is better. At least his political woes are happening after the election not right before, as was the case with his father.

EDITOR'S NOTE Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.