Bush, as mediator, stresses compromise

Texas governor revels in making deals, often leaves details to others

March 02, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,Jonathan Weisman

AUSTIN, TEXAS — With 16 presidential primaries and caucuses, including Maryland's, set for Tuesday, The Sun takes a closer look at the leading Republican candidates. Today, George W. Bush. Tomorrow, John McCain.

AUSTIN, Texas -- The 1999 legislative session was drawing to a contentious close last May when the competing hallmarks of George W. Bush's agenda -- early childhood education and a proposed $2 billion tax cut -- finally collided. Democrats wanted to oblige the first request, Republicans the second.

In tense negotiations, with Bush playing the mediator, a fuming, shouting Democratic state Rep. Paul Sadler battled three of his Republican colleagues and two Bush staff members. Bush's efforts ended abruptly when he left for a college commencement speech.

When he returned, the deal had been cut. The $300 million the Republicans wanted for tax cuts would remain to fund pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and Head Start, while $1.4 billion would be dedicated to property tax cuts.

That confrontation frames much of Bush's career as governor: his personal role in negotiations, his love for the ceremonial aspects of power, his propensity to delegate authority on the details. And it captures the difficulties that lie beneath his campaign rhetoric. The "reformer with results," as he has calls himself, has brokered many of his achievements through difficult compromises that often have tugged him from his Republican moorings. Moreover, his Democratic foes, through their willingness to spend tax dollars on the social programs he has championed, say they have been responsible for much of the self-proclaimed compassion in Bush's conservatism.

Bush's aides, as well as Democratic and Republican allies in the legislature, are proud of his penchant for compromise, which they say has placed accomplishment over politics.

"The purpose of compromise, and that's what makes the legislative process work, is that each side believes that their concerns have been addressed, maybe not fully but enough to be satisfactory," said Albert Hawkins, Bush's budget director. "And if one side sees this part is to their benefit and the other side sees that this part is to their benefit, then it's successful."

Solutions may be overlooked

But Texas critics of Bush, on both the left and the right, say the cozy atmosphere among those in power in Austin has left bold solutions ignored and good intentions underfunded.

And Democrats, especially those on the lower rungs of power, are beginning to bristle at what they see as Bush's propensity to take credit on the campaign trail for achievements for which they were largely responsible: the managed care legislation that became law without his signature, the generous children's health insurance program he actively fought and the clean-air regulations with which he was forced to go along.

Those Democrats will meticulously cite how they, not the governor, should be given the lion's share of the credit for Bush's signature issues: educational accountability, limits on civil lawsuits, a tightening of juvenile justice laws, and sweeping welfare reform. Bush put his stamp on the bills that finally cleared the legislature, most concede, but they insist those measures were already moving when Bush latched on.

"Just because the sun came up when the rooster crowed doesn't mean the sun came up because the rooster crowed," Democratic Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos rhapsodized in Spanish.

Bush campaigned for the governor's office in 1994 on a quartet of issues: educational improvement, a revision of Texas' civil justice laws, a toughening of juvenile justice and welfare reform.

On all four, the Texas legislature -- which meets only every other year for 140 days -- had given him a head start.

In 1993, Bush's Democratic predecessor, Ann Richards, had pushed through a model accountability program that would test Texas schoolchildren from third grade to 10th grade to ensure they were progressing. Also that year, state lawmakers mandated that the state's complex educational curriculum would be rewritten the next legislative session.

The legislature also set juvenile justice reform in motion with a lengthy 1993 study that pinpointed needed criminal code revisions. Welfare reform was being driven from Washington, with state lawmakers hastily completing an interim report on reform proposals before leaving Austin in 1993. The first tort reforms -- on product liability, foreign lawsuits and medical malpractice limits -- also passed that year.

But Bush wanted to move further, and his weapon with the legislature would be personal charm, not brute force.

Courting power brokers

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