The Agenda

What Obama Can Learn from Bush

A few weeks ago, I argued that the Obama White House would be well served by taking its cues from the Bush-Rove approach to passing legislation. Naturally, there was no good reason for liberals to trust me, so I assume the column fell on deaf ears. But now some on the center-left, like Noam Scheiber, are making a similar case. Scheiber’s column adds very valuable historical context.

Old Washington hands like Breaux proclaimed that Bush would have to take a more conciliatory approach in the Senate, where the 50-50 partisan split supposedly made it impossible to stiff-arm Democrats. Bush wisely ignored the advice, resorting to a shrewd inside-outside game instead. Inside the hallowed Senate chamber, Republicans pressed ahead with their reconciliation plans. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott went so far as to sack the Senate parliamentarian—whom Republicans had hired back in 1995—after a ruling making it harder to pass the full tax cut package through reconciliation.

For his part, Bush kept the pressure on by constantly turning up in the backyards of red-state Democrats. Between his inauguration and early April, Bush held campaign-style events in some 22 states—including Maine, where he hoped to light a fire under the state’s moderate Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. 

In the end, 12 Democrats in the Senate voted for Bush’s 2001 tax cut, which the Republicans passed through the reconciliation process.

It seems blindingly obvious to me — as I’ve argued ad infinitum — that the Obama administration would have been wise to pursue a similar strategy for health reform, expanding public programs through reconciliation and demonizing Republicans as heartless for opposing the expansion, a replay of the S-CHIP debate. Instead, the president made a wonky (and in my view highly misleading) argument for health reform as entitlement reform that glossed over the docfix, relied heavily on gaming the CBO, and raised the anxieties of older voters and taxpayers more broadly. This is good news for conservatives who oppose the health reform proposal in a sense. But the president who devised this strategy is also the captain of the ship of state, and that’s not entirely reassuring.  

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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