Thursday, November 09, 2006

Why the GOP's losses may be a blessing in disguise for Bush
Alter: GOP Loss Is Good for Bush
Why the GOP's losses may be a blessing in disguise for Bush.
By Jonathan Alter

Nov. 8, 2006 - As President Bush admitted in his post-election news conference, he and the GOP took a “thumping” at the polls Nov. 7. And he didn’t look happy about it. His joshing first line to reporters—“Why the glum faces?”—reflected his underlying belief that “liberal” reporters should have been smiling instead of downcast like him.

But after the sting is gone, Bush may begin to understand that the “thumping” was a blessing in disguise—a way for him to yet salvage something of his presidency, both at home and abroad. He began that process by firing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the first step toward regaining the initiative on Iraq. And the dividends for Bush of the Democratic victory may keep paying off for the rest of his term—and in the history books.

In Washington, it’s much easier to block something than to get it through. So if the GOP had maintained control of the House of Representatives, Democrats would have been able to stymie any Bush legislation, just as they did last year on Social Security. Had the Bush policy in Iraq been validated by the election, he would have had no incentive to listen to the Iraq Study Group led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton or otherwise find a way out of the quagmire. Democrats would have just kept firing away at a failed policy for the next two years.

But when you get control, you have to produce. So Democrats will pass bills (with the help of a Republican or two on the Senate side, if necessary) and dare Bush to veto them. And he will, but he will also—as he indicated in his press conference-negotiate with incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the new Democratic leadership to “get something done.”

History favors this outcome.

When President Ronald Reagan wanted wins on Social Security and tax reform in 1986, he negotiated with House Speaker Tip O’Neill and other Democrats, either in person or by proxy. And when Bill Clinton wanted to make good on his pledge to reform welfare, he couldn’t do it with a Democratic Congress, which was wedded to old thinking on the subject. It took Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Republicans to hold his feet to the fire by passing welfare bills that he first vetoed, then signed in 1996. Now Clinton calls that product of so-called gridlock one of the greatest parts of his legacy.

The best model is Bush’s own father, who pushed through domestic accomplishments like the Americans With Disabilities Act with Democratic votes. In 1990, Bush père hoped to rescue the American economy and reassure the bond market by balancing the budget. So he got together with Democratic Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell on a package of spending cuts and tax increases. The bipartisan budget deal worked, helping to kick off the biggest economic boom in American history. Of course the deal meant repudiating his “Read my lips no new taxes” pledge and it helped cost Bush re-election in 1992. His son took that lesson to heart when he adopted Karl Rove’s “base strategy,” under which any tax increases were verboten.

But this Bush, safely re-elected, doesn’t have to worry about paying the ultimate political price for conservative heresy. He can play now to his legacy. The president has already indicated that he will sign an increase in the minimum wage early next year, and he’ll do the same for several other bills the Democrats pass. In fact, even his precious tax cuts for the wealthy (originally crafted just to respond to Steve Forbes’s flat tax in the 2000 Republican primaries) will be on the table. Next year, when he signs a tax bill that makes the cuts fairer to the middle class, he’ll take credit, just as he will when Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton come up with a withdraw-the-troops-to-Kurdistan plan or some other face-saving policy in Iraq.

So look for the alcoves devoted to “Stabilizing Iraq” and “Helping Working Americans” in the George W. Bush Presidential Library. Five years from now, we’ll find him there, beaming.