For Bush, Pyrrhic Persistence

By David Ignatius
Friday, June 24, 2005

There's a relaxed, mature kind of leader who knows, in the words of country music singer Kenny Rogers, when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. That leader is not George W. Bush.

Six months into his second term, President Bush hasn't found that easy, poker player's balance. He treats every political fight as if it's the Battle of Gettysburg, and any hint of political compromise as if it's a potential dagger in the heart of his presidency.

Bush's supporters see that uncompromising style as a sign of inner strength, but to me it has always seemed more a sign of insecurity. Embattled, vulnerable leaders sometimes imagine that one compromise or defeat will undermine their ability to govern, but strong leaders are more confident. They know they can fold a losing hand because they have a big pile of chips in reserve. That confidence is still missing in the Bush presidency, more than four years on.

I admire Bush's stubbornness when it comes to genuine issues of principle, such as the war in Iraq. When the president says he's going to stay the course, people believe him -- and they know he won't pay attention to polls or congressional criticism. That determination is immensely valuable for the United States and the world. What emboldened Osama bin Laden and other Islamic radicals was a sense that America would buckle if it were hit hard. Bush is showing that it was unwise to bet on American weakness.

But not every issue is Iraq, and a president who is unyielding on every challenge will eventually undercut his ability to hold fast on the ones that really matter. That's what has bothered me this year as the White House hunkered down on losing battles such as the nomination of John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations or the president's plan to privatize Social Security.

Let's start with Bolton. Bush was unwise to have nominated such a divisive figure in the first place, but he is doubly unwise to stick with him after confirmation hearings presented evidence of Bolton's manipulative and immature behavior as undersecretary of state. To conservatives, the testimony that Bolton had acted like a petulant bully somehow became proof that he was the right man for the United Nations. But the president should know better.

Here's the speech that a confident president would be giving this week: "I think John Bolton would be a fine ambassador to the United Nations. But Senate Democrats, unfairly in my view, are refusing to allow an up-or-down vote on his nomination. And several Republican senators have expressed concern that John's effectiveness at the U.N. would be damaged by his confirmation hearings. So, reluctantly, I am agreeing to John's request that I withdraw the nomination, and I will look for another position where he can serve his country effectively."

Would that speech undermine Bush's authority as president? Would it weaken his ability to conduct a strong foreign policy? Of course not. He would emerge stronger for it. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist recognized that political reality and was ready this week to stand down on Bolton. But this White House unwisely sees any compromise as fatal, so the president sent Frist back to the trenches.

Now consider Social Security. Here, too, Bush could give a speech that -- by recognizing political reality -- might actually strengthen his hand: "I want all Americans to have the same opportunity as millionaires to choose how their retirement money is invested. But I've traveled the country this year talking to the American people about Social Security, and I've heard their message: Let's fix the financial problems that weaken America's retirement program first, and think about privatization later. So I will be working with a bipartisan congressional group to make Social Security truly secure."

Would that speech weaken Bush's political clout? Would it make it harder for him to have a successful second term? No way. It would help him achieve the legacy he so obviously wants.

"He'll never do it." "He's incapable of compromise." I'm already picturing the e-mails I'll get from readers telling me why it's inconceivable that this president would show any hint of flexibility or that he might learn from his mistakes. Bush's critics argue that he's a partisan divider, a "transformer" who isn't interested in political compromise and is incapable of change. Maybe they're right, but that's a dangerous forecast for Bush.

Bush's problem in this second term is that rigidity will limit his ability to govern effectively. Refusing to give ground on little things will eventually erode his power to sustain the big things. To successfully govern a sharply divided country, Bush will have to stop painting himself into corners.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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