Why Bush Has Trouble Just Saying No
P resident Bush summoned reporters to the front of Air Force One last week to issue his 134th veto threat, warning Congress not to try to block the transfer of the management of six U.S. ports to an Arab-owned firm. But it's a good bet that his threat won't result in an actual veto. The first 133 didn't.
Bush is the first president to complete an entire term without exercising his veto power since John Quincy Adams, which seems counterintuitive. Bush is an Action Man; he believes the essence of political leadership is strong and decisive action that creates its own political reality. Bush is also an ardent believer in executive power; he takes an expansive view of his prerogatives as commander in chief and continues to push for more, including the line-item veto. So why hasn't he used the veto he already has?
The answers have their roots in Republican control of Congress, Bush's singular notions of power and the calculation by GOP congressional leaders that their fortunes would rise and fall with the president's. The result has been a classic Beltway Kabuki game, where veto threats don't really mean veto threats, although they don't mean nothing, either.
One-party control of both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue has never ensured a veto-free presidency; Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt vetoed 635 bills enacted by Democratic Congresses. But unlike Roosevelt and the fractious Democrats of his era, Bush and the Republican leaders in Congress for the most part agree, sharing an anti-abortion, pro-war, anti-tax, not-so-anti-
spending philosophy. And aides say both sides have pledged to resolve differences before they reach the veto stage; Bush's top lobbyist told the National Journal last year that if Bush ever did veto legislation, it would be by "mutual agreement" with GOP leaders.
"This was the first time Republicans had full control since the '50s; we wanted to show we could work together as a governing majority," says lobbyist Vin Weber, a former GOP House member whose clients include the United Arab Emirates. "Coming this far without a veto, that's a sign of the party's cohesion and the president's strength."
Bush likes to project an image of strength bordering on omnipotence, where every initiative is a presidential initiative, everyone marches to the presidential beat, and everything happens according to the presidential plan -- even when he's clearly changing that plan, as when he co-opted the Democratic proposal to create a Department of Homeland Security or when he incorporated a popular Democratic idea to send $300 to every American into his own tax-cut plan. A veto does not square with this aura of all-powerful, agenda-setting leadership. It's a defensive, reactive measure, used to block someone else's initiative, suggesting a lack of discipline within the Republican ranks.
So when the Bush administration has floated veto threats, on issues ranging from stem cells to the Patriot Act, they've usually been signals to GOP leaders about priorities. For example, the White House statement about last year's highway bill warned that if it exceeded $284 billion, "the president's senior advisers would recommend that he veto the bill," but if it included a provision weakening sanctions against Cuba, "the President would veto the bill." The final bill was several billion dollars above the president's marker, but the Cuba provision was stripped. Bush signed it.
On philosophical issues, Bush's veto threats have often turned debates over principle into tests of partisan loyalty, helping congressional leaders persuade recalcitrant Republicans to toe the party line. On budget issues, Bush's threats have pushed GOP leaders to come down a bit to his spending targets -- on the highway bill, the original House proposal was $350 billion -- but he has let them decide how to meet the targets. So Bush has been able to propose cuts in cotton subsidies, water projects and certain military hardware without having to worry that the cuts would be enacted.
But this delicate choreography no longer seems to be working for a lame-duck president with sagging poll numbers. When Bush threatened to veto a provision banning torture, GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona refused to back off, and the president caved in the face of overwhelming opposition, agreeing to a face-saving "compromise" on McCain's terms. The port controversy looks like another breakdown in party discipline; mindful of this year's congressional elections, Republican leaders distanced themselves from Bush, and one back-bencher told the president "not just NO but HELL NO!"
"He can't rely on automatic support on this one," says Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). "It's not enough to say: Trust me. There's too much political baggage."
By the end of the week, Bush seemed to be caving again, although as usual he was not describing his actions that way. Recall the coda to the torture flap: Bush signed the bill, but also a statement that as serted his right as commander in chief to ignore the bill. There is, after all, one more reason why a believer in executive power might not use his power to veto laws he doesn't like: He might not think he needs to follow them.
Michael Grunwald is a reporter on The Post's