Friday, August 19, 2011

Scoring Bush's Influence

There was a bit of a discussion again this week about the extent to which George W. Bush was able to get things that he wanted out of Congress.

There's a bit more to it than that, however. It's a mistake to think of everything that presidents wind up supporting as their initiative, or that Congress is the only alternative to presidential rule. Take, for example, Don't Ask Don't Tell under Bill Clinton. In the end, Clinton wound up publicly supporting DADT. But his original preference was repealing the ban entirely. What happened? He was rolled, to some extent by Congress (and specifically Sam Nunn), but more importantly by the Pentagon.

So, on Bush. I've given my read of Bush as president before; I suspect that the more that we learn, the more we'll confirm he was essentially passive and indifferent on most things. Was the Patriot Act a Bush policy? I admit that I haven't read everything that is known about it, but my impression is that it wasn't at all a Bush policy; it was a policy supported more or less forever by various executive branch agencies who used the September 11 attacks to roll Congress...and George W. Bush. Similarly, even something as central to the Bush presidency as Iraq is hard to judge. Was it Bush's policy? Cheney's? A faction within the party?

Of course, the same sorts of things can be done with respect to the president and Congress. Certainly, the 2001 tax bill was Bush's -- he campaigned for it, and asked Congress for it. But virtually every Republican in Congress also campaigned on it, too. It's just as much theirs as his, no? Disentangling those sorts of things isn't easy at all, it seems to me. But at least with Congress and the president, we get to see a lot of what's happening; within the executive branch, we often don't, at least not for a while.

An overly influential Pentagon, say, is just a very different situation than an overly influential president. Just because the president announces a policy doesn't mean that he got his way.


  1. What do you think of the argument by some "Professional Lefties" that if you're going to defend Obama (or demythologize Bush) by saying the president is weak, you're just providing an argument that it doesn't really matter who gets elected president?

  2. >"Professional Lefties"

    Great name for a band.

  3. I would consider Iraq to be a combination of Cheney's misplaced belief that we could get at their oil and Bush's desire to prove himself better than his father. In other words, a perfect storm of political opportunity and ineptitude, but the overriding factor was Bush's need to prove himself.

  4. Oh, come on. Going to war in Iraq was about the only policy goal that we know George Bush cared about. He even said he was going to do it before the election. We have numerous accounts of administration insiders (people who disagreed on a lot of stuff) who say that Bush was fully committed to war with Iraq. If you aren't sure that the Iraq war was Bush's policy, what are you sure of?

    Now, most of the Bush administration's policy successes were Cheney's goals (tax cuts for the rich, eviseration of environmental regulation, torture, the expansion of the National Security state, etc.). At the very least that proves that the executive branch can do amazing things when directed by an experienced hand at both bureaucratic in-fighting and legislative arm-twisting. I think it also says that executive power is inherently better for achieving conservative and reactionary goals than liberal ones.

  5. I guess you can make a distinction between what a president takes initiative for and what a president merely agrees with but from the public's point of view it hardly matters. An situation in which congress or the pentagon insist on a policy the president agrees with gives no information on whether the president is strong or "able to get his way."

    On the other hand, a difference between what policy a president agrees with and what he ends up supporting in the interests of compromise or of politics can be evidence of relative presidential weakness (at least on one issue), as the Bill Clinton example.

  6. There does seem to be a major difference in method. GW's administration drafted legislation and fed it to Congress, where Republicans voted on it in lock step. Some of this -- energy bills come to mind -- were, it seems, mostly drafted by the industries they impacted.

    Obama administration seems to have more of a mind toward the separation of powers, and has left Congress to actually write legislation, rather then feeding it to them already developed.

    Now this is my understanding, please correct me if I'm wrong.

    I think, if this is true, that while the Bush method seemed politically less volatile, it went hand in hand with notions of the unitary executive and gave undue power to the industries while writing the legislation.

    Obama's efforts to return Congress to actually developing legislation, while messy, strikes me as an important constitutional correction, but at the expense of debacle debates we've seen with health care reform, the extension of unemployment benefits and tax cuts and the debt ceiling. (I would chalk much of that gridlock up to a Congress that seems to have forgotten how to do their jobs during the Bush years.)

  7. zic,

    I don't think the gridlock resulted from Congress forgetting how to do their jobs. It's obstructionism, undergirded by strong ideological differences. The GOP would rather see nothing happen than see Obama succeed, in part because they don't like his policies and in part so they can accuse him of being ineffective.

    Obama's approach to legislation--letting Congress take the lead--is no doubt rooted in Bill Clinton's experience with health care. Clinton presented a Congress led by Democrats with a complete health-reform package, and Congress refused even to vote on it. Obama let Congress take the lead, got his legislation, and is accused of ineffectiveness. Republicans complain that he isn't really leading, but frankly it's part of their job to complain and they're going to do it either way. The public was repulsed by the spectacle of politics in part because it was hard fought, highly ideological, and involved a lot of distortion, but also in part because the public doesn't usually pay any attention to these things, doesn't know what's required to reach a major policy decision, and assumes there must be some "greater good" that is clearly visible to all well-intentioned people and that politicians should just come to agreement and move along.

  8. so much info! my brain is crying!!!


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