For Bush, the Balancing Act Begins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 23, 1999; Page A1
Texas Gov. George W. Bush got an enthusiastic reception from Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill yesterday, but the outpouring may come at a price. Can the front-running presidential candidate accept the support of congressional Republicans, political analysts are beginning to ask, without taking on their baggage, as well?
Bush's relationship with the GOP-controlled Congress looks to be a long, delicate dance. The more support he commands from elected officials now, strategists from both parties agree, the more difficult it will be for any of his GOP rivals to deny him the party's nomination.
But the Republican majority – with its legacy of impeachment, former speaker Newt Gingrich and a government shutdown – has proven not very popular with large numbers of voters. So the more Bush embraces Congress, the more he risks offending the moderates and independents he will need to win a general election.
"The minuet is a good analogy because he certainly doesn't want to do close dancing," said John J. Pitney, a professor at Claremont McKenna College. "Over the years, people have developed some negative attitudes toward the Republican Congress. He wants to hold them at a chaste, respectful distance."
Bush has the support of 23 of the 55 Republican senators and 126 of 223 GOP House members. As a result, from guns, abortion and the Ten Commandments to Kosovo, the budget and Social Security, he is likely to be drawn into every hot debate on Capitol Hill.
Emerging from his meeting with House supporters yesterday, Bush said he does not regard congressional Republicans as a liability, and he won't run against them in his campaign. "I'm not going to bash Republican members of Congress," he said.
Instead, he told his congressional supporters he appreciated their support and hoped to work with them.
So far, Bush has picked a careful path through the congressional minefield. He has endorsed Republican opposition to stiffer gun controls and said that he would have voted to impeach President Clinton, but he staked out a more hawkish position on Kosovo than the majority of Republicans in the House.
"He will try to straddle," said Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, who predicts relentless questions from reporters and from Bush's primary opponents on the topic of the controversial Congress. "It's one of the most challenging aspects of his candidacy."
At a huge fund-raiser last night, Bush made it clear that he hopes to chart his own course. He signaled that he would try to bring a more bipartisan and less contentious tone to the way business is conducted in Washington. "Many across the land look at Washington and they don't like what they see," he said. "They see people more worried about who gets the credit and who gets the blame than who gets results."
Bush said it is time to "restore a sense of common purpose" to the national government, and said the president should "put America's long-term needs above short-term political advantage."
Bush said he has worked closely with Republicans and Democrats in Texas, and said it will take that kind of bipartisan cooperation to solve some of the country's biggest problems. To underscore his working relationship with Democrats, Bush was introduced by Democratic state Rep. Rob Junell, chairman of the Texas House appropriations committee.
Democrats, however, are not likely to let Bush freely chart his own course. Roy Romer, Democratic National Committee general chairman, challenged Bush this week to set out his priorities for the fiscal 2000 budget pending in Congress. To wait, Romer argued, would allow the congressional leadership to gut Bush's pledge to leave no Americans behind at a time of prosperity. "If Bush intends to be a leader of his party as their nominee, he has an obligation to provide some leadership right now," Romer said. "Failure to act can be disastrous to programs that are really critical to America."
Democrats spotted another chance yesterday. During a visit to Richmond, Bush said that he hopes "America will have a law that protects the unborn child and that every child will be welcomed into life. I understand that's the ideal, that it will take leadership to convince people to protect life."
Advisers to Vice President Gore and other top Democrats charged that Bush was suddenly promising more vigorous opposition to abortion as a way to curry favor with Congress. "It's no surprise on the day Bush visits with the right-wing Republican extremists in Congress that he finally makes clear to the American people his right-wing extremist views that would take away a woman's right to choose," said Marla Romash, Gore's deputy campaign chairman.
Bush spokesman David Beckwith said the statement represented no change in Bush's long-standing position. "This is another sign of desperation by the Democrats," he said. "His position is constant and clear."
Bush advisers say their candidate can both enjoy the support of individual members of Congress while running on his own record and agenda. "The Bush campaign will set its own course and it's a course that's very consistent with Republican principles and the mainstream of the Republican Party," said former GOP chairman Haley Barbour, a member of the Bush campaign's exploratory committee. "It's one Republicans in Congress will feel comfortable getting behind if he's the nominee."
The candidate may plan no attacks on congressional Republicans, but there were no photo ops yesterday with controversial GOP leaders such as House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (Tex.) or House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Tex.), both of whom have endorsed Bush. They were at a leadership meeting when Bush came to Capitol Hill.
Rep. David E. Dreier (R-Calif.), a Bush supporter, said he hopes Bush will occasionally disagree with Congress, if only to show that "we are not a monolithic block." But like other Republicans in Congress, Dreier said he found it refreshing that Bush had refused to criticize congressional Republicans in the way some other GOP presidential candidates have done. "He is one of the few who doesn't attack, attack, attack his own team here," Dreier said.
When Bush was asked last week in New Hampshire what he thinks of the job Congress is doing, he kept his answer cool. "I thought the welfare reform package was great," Bush said. Asked for a more recent success, he said, "That's recent memory." Then he added: "I appreciate the fact that we have a balanced budget." From there, Bush moved quickly to promising a new spirit of civility in Washington should he be elected.
Gary Jacobson of the University of California at San Diego said Bush should "run as George Bush, governor of Texas, not as a congressional Republican." Wishful thinking, Bush's opponents say. They point to the gun control conflict in the House last week and the acrimonious debate over cultural influences on American youth.
A floor speech by DeLay, who has endorsed Bush for president, was, in the view of some analysts, reminiscent of the speech that conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan delivered at the 1992 GOP convention in Houston. That speech promised a cultural war in America, and its tone badly hurt Bush's father, then-President George Bush, in his reelection bid.
Democrats already are attempting to lash DeLay to Bush's candidacy, much as they hung Gingrich around 1996 nominee Robert J. Dole. Jacobson said if DeLay becomes the image of the party, "It will hurt Republicans in the general election with moderate voters."
But Bush maintains he is not worried. DeLay, Bush said yesterday, is "a friend" of long standing. "Attempts to tie me to DeLay and all that stuff, that's fine, but I don't think it's going to hunt. . . . We're running for the executive branch."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company