Bush must face Senate reality

May 28, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - After only four months of political good health, President Bush has become a victim of novice's disease, the affliction that frequently visits new occupants of the White House.

As with several predecessors, the early symptoms were ignored until it was too late to avert the disease's politically crippling manifestations.

So it was for Democrats John F. Kennedy with the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, Jimmy Carter with his despised assault on Western water projects in 1977 and Bill Clinton with his gays-in-the-military flap in 1993.

All stumbled early and had to spend months putting their young administrations back on course. Recent Republican presidents had pretty much avoided novice's disease, until now.

The growing dissatisfaction of Sen. Jim Jeffords with his inability to have a voice in the direction the country was being taken by the conservative Bush agenda was too cavalierly dismissed. As Mr. Bush went blissfully ahead with what he insisted was a popular mandate in spite of his minority support from the voters in November, Mr. Jeffords quietly took stock of where his party was, and where he was. He didn't like either, and finally said so with a solitary act that has put the Bush agenda in a meat grinder.

While the president and his Republican Party still have 49 votes in the Senate, the loss of floor leadership and committee chairmanships to the Democrats creates a whole new ballgame, giving the Democrats the vehicles they need to frustrate Mr. Bush's determination to bring Reaganism back to Washington.

Bush proposals from missile defense and energy to a truncated prescription drugs plan and conservative judicial appointments are now all imperiled by the loss of Senate control. Mr. Bush initially reacted by saying he "respectfully" disagreed with Mr. Jeffords on where he wants to take the country and intended to press on, inviting the kind of obstructionism that Senate Democrats administered when the senior Bush was where the son finds himself today.

The shocked Senate Republican leadership hit the panic button on the day Mr. Jeffords jumped ship. They short-circuited an agreed-upon Judiciary Committee staff investigation into Democratic allegations of dissembling by Mr. Bush's nominee to be solicitor general, Ted Olson. Lame-duck Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott then brought Mr. Olson's nomination to the Senate floor before the Democrats could take control, and the Bush lawyer in Bush vs. Gore before the Supreme Court won confirmation by a near straight-party vote.

Although the prospective new majority leader, Sen. Tom Daschle, spoke in conciliatory tones about achieving a spirit of compromise with the Bush White House, he is in the position of a prison inmate who suddenly finds the cell keys in his hand and the warden on the other side of the bars. If there is legislative negotiating to be done, he's now in strong position to do his share.

Earlier presidents who suffered severe cases of novice's disease moved quickly to find a cure. Kennedy made changes in the CIA and the military after the bad institutional advice he got on the Bay of Pigs invasion, relying more thereafter on trusted aides.

Mr. Carter learned to listen to the counsel of Democratic veterans on Capitol Hill like Tip O'Neill in dealing with congressional prerogatives. Bill Clinton made a slow recovery from novice's disease, suffering relapses on a series of cabinet and sub-cabinet appointments, but the patient lived to face various other political maladies.

The question now is whether Mr. Bush in his arrogance will simply settle for a couple of aspirins and good night's sleep, or will face the reality of the political misfortune that has visited his young administration and take remedial action.

The deep conservative coloration of today's Republican Party, which was conspicuously observed and lamented in Mr. Jeffords' GOP swan song, doesn't give Mr. Bush a great deal of maneuvering room in which to try to placate the remaining moderates in the party.

He has managed to keep the Republican right wing relatively mollified by adhering to its dogma on everything from abortion and gun control to judicial appointments while talking the talk of bipartisanship. Now, with the Senate in enemy hands, he will be pushed harder to walk the walk.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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