When the president's men traveled to Capitol Hill last week to sound the trumpet for all-out battle against the Democrats, they were chilled to discover that House Republicans had different war aims.
It certainly was not pacifism that undermined Chief of Staff John Sununu and Budget Director Richard Darman at Tuesday's House GOP Policy Committee meeting. The indifferent reaction to their trumpet call had a more ominous source: loss of confidence in President Bush's political competence. That loss deepened the next day when the White House had to pull back from an erroneous announcement of a Bush ultimatum demanding a Democratic budget plan within 48 hours.
While the Democrats smile, the Republicans frown. Eleven weeks of futile budget summitry, combined with the worsening savings and loan crisis and a feeble economy, have transformed national politics. Panic running through the House Republican cloakroom brings talk, however premature, of a Democratic sweep in November.
That was the mood encountered by Sununu and Darman at the Policy Committee when they sang the song supposed to be music to congressional ears: The president would not permit Congress to recess for August without seizing the offensive by blaming Democrats for the budget stalemate.
Nobody cheered. Outspoken conservative Rep. William E. Dannemeyer of California, who on NBC's "Meet the Press" two days earlier had seared the president's strategy, said what others were thinking: Bush and GOP lawmakers no longer share the same agenda. Sununu said he had a response to that but had promised Republican leaders he would not be nasty. Nevertheless, moderate Rep. Paul Henry of Michigan seconded Dannemeyer's comments, and additional congressmen followed suit.
The members of Congress believe the president has committed a series of blunders with fateful consequences for their party. Trouble was preordained in the 1988 campaign for the nomination when Bush enshrined the budget deficit as the country's most important issue. That led to his summoning the budget summit -- much too early, in the opinion of congressional critics.
The bigger blunder was Bush's repudiation of his no-tax pledge, followed by specific tax hikes (on beer and wine, plus lower deductions for state and local taxes). "They thought we were like bulls who would charge when we saw the tax increase," a Democratic deficit negotiator, House Majority Whip William Gray (Pa.), told us. Instead, the Democrats didn't even blink. When Republicans insisted that Democrats unveil their own plan, Gray offered a one-word response of World War II vintage: "Nuts!"
Last week's no-more-Mr.-Nice-Guy rendition by the gentler president over breakfast with Republicans is laughed off by hard-nosed, newly confident Democrats. They are beside themselves with joy that Bush has jettisoned the anti-tax role honed by Republicans the past decade. These Democrats will not budge an inch toward taxes, unless marching behind a Republican president who guarantees Republican votes in Congress. It is a delicious position for a party divided, demoralized and defeated on taxes only a year ago.
In fact, Republicans will not follow the president into a tax-boosting budget deal acceptable to Democrats. House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich's (Ga.) valiant effort to bridge the gap between the Hill GOP and the White House exposed him to withering cross-fire. He was assailed by his colleagues after he told the summit he could support tax increases as part of a "good" budget agreement. What he did next subjected him to heavy shelling from the White House and Treasury.
The president's men were incensed when Gingrich twice criticized Bush's strategy on national TV. Over breakfast with reporters Tuesday, he suggested the president should quickly revert to "Classic Coke" tax policy: the "read my lips" pledge. Wednesday morning newspaper accounts set Gingrich's phone to ringing. His good friend Sununu placed a distraught call at 6:45 a.m. Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady followed with an angry demand that Gingrich decide whether he was part of the team. The member of Congress replied that he's "an ally, not a partner."
A more partisan line has long been pressed on the president by Sununu. Even the less confrontational Darman has always understood Democrats would not make a deal except when facing an abyss: sequestration. Bush's rhetoric is intended to blame the devastating spending cuts of Gramm-Rudman on the Democrats. But Democrats doubt that the president can pull it off, and their Republican colleagues fear they are right.
Further souring this bad news is the increasingly poor prospect for a capital gains tax cut, essential to spur economic growth. The Treasury doesn't like the move all that much, and Bush now ignores it. The upshot: fear and loathing among Republicans as the mid-term campaign begins.