The GOP's hunger for real power

October 24, 1999|By George F. Will

AUSTIN, Texas -- The columnist, who writes about politics to support his baseball habit, asks the former part-owner of the Texas Rangers about possible solutions to the revenue imbalances that threaten Major League Baseball's competitive balance. Gov. George W. Bush seems to relish talking about a subject close to his heart and distant from presidential campaigning, which is a grind akin to a 162-game season.

One way to measure a politician's mind is to get him talking about something other than politics. For half an hour, Mr. Bush discusses such baseball business as luxury taxes, revenue sharing, the amateur draft and contraction (closing a couple of chronically ill franchises), demonstrating mastery of the arcana, and a bracing decisiveness.

Segueing into politics, Mr. Bush is obviously as comfortable with himself as he is in the easy chair into which he crumbles in the parlor of the governor's mansion. When Mr. Bush speaks of doing this or that after he has the nomination, or as president, it is without bravado. He simply knows he is passing a test.

The presidential selection process administers, unforgivingly, this pertinent test: Can a candidate, who if elected must staff a vast government to advance a complex agenda, orchestrate a continental campaign? Only Mr. Bush among the Republicans is taking, let alone passing, that test.

The media's monomania about Mr. Bush's fund raising reflects an obdurate refusal to recognize that Mr. Bush has lots of money because he has lots of supporters, not vice versa. He has them partly because of his father's fate: Republicans at first learned, and then painfully unlearned, the wrong lesson from the Bush presidency.

Having watched Democratic Speaker Tom Foley and Democratic Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell bedevil and often best President George Bush, many Republicans revived the conservative aspiration of congressional supremacy. They thought: Congress really can be a co-equal branch, and controlling it might even be preferable to holding the presidency, which is the engine of energetic government.

Party mistakes

Those ideas died during such GOP debacles as the 1995 government shutdown and the rout of Republicans during last fall's budget negotiations. These gave Republicans their own monomania: they must win the White House.

Campaign headquarters here contains the cream of the current crop of GOP practitioners of the inseparable crafts of making and presenting policy. They are recasting conservatism by expunging the conservative ambivalence about presidential power.

Hence the presence on the cluttered desk of chief speech writer Mike Gerson of Terry Eastland's book, "Energy in the Executive: The Case for the Strong Presidency." Mr. Eastland's title comes from Alexander Hamilton's Federalist Paper Number 70: "Energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government." Mr. Eastland's thesis is that "the strong presidency is necessary to effect ends sought by most conservatives."

Conservatives are viscerally suspicious of power made potent by being concentrated in one person, and are wary of the plebiscitary idea of democracy inherent in the idea of a "presidential nation." Furthermore, modern conservatism originally defined itself in opposition to Franklin Roosevelt.

But one of Mr. Bush's closest advisers, Karl Rove, is a history buff fascinated by William McKinley, the conservative Republican who helped pioneer the modern presidency by proclaiming his election in 1896 a personal mandate -- "the commanding verdict of the people." His Republican successor, Theodore Roosevelt, personalized the office by his riveting ebullience. TR's Republican successor, William Howard Taft, ratified the personalization by his then-novel reference to "the Roosevelt policies."

The rhetoric that fueled Republican capture of the House five years ago was Jeffersonian: that government is best that governs least, and so on. But rather than betokening the dawn of a new era, that rhetoric was the final flaring of an old impulse.

Double talk

It is now obvious to all but ideologically blinkered conservatives: Americans talk like Jeffersonians but are content to live -- no, insist on living -- with a large, Hamiltonian government.

This, then, is why Mr. Bush's campaign is remarkable for more than its operational proficiency. He is comfortable around people of high intellectual quality, and has a cadre of them devising theoretical justification for his instinctive proclivity -- call it "strong-executive conservatism."

The former president's first son favors filial piety, but only up to a point: A second Bush presidency would be more muscular than the first in exercising executive power.

George F. Will writes a syndicated column.

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