Gov. George W. Bush made a name for himself in Texas by enacting his legislative agenda with significant Democratic support. President Bush has been effective in Congress, but primarily with a legislative strategy that relies on Republican votes. This tale of two Bushes is something of a mystery. Why such a difference?
Bush came to the Texas governorship facing a Legislature controlled by the Democrats (17-14 in the House, 89-61 in the Senate). He ran for governor on a platform of four issues: education reform, tort reform, juvenile justice reform and welfare reform. Much work had been done on these issues in previous Democratic Legislatures in Texas, and there was the outline of a consensus, but nonetheless Bush deserves credit for pushing them through the legislative process.
Bush didn’t just attract Democratic votes to his proposals. He established strong working relationships with back-bench Democrats, committee chairmen, and House and Senate leaders. House Speaker Pete Laney, who came to the speakership as Bush assumed the governorship, was friendly enough six years later to introduce Bush before his victory speech after Al Gore had conceded the election in December 2000.
But by far the most significant relationship was with Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. One reason for the Bush-Bullock partnership was that their political views were somewhat compatible; Bullock was a conservative Democrat. The partnership, however, was by no means pre-ordained. Bullock had had a frosty relationship with Bush’s predecessor, Democratic Gov. Ann Richards. Republicans, who had been in the minority in the Texas Legislature for more than a century, recalled tough partisan treatment by Bullock and dubbed him “Machiavelli in boots.” One Republican consultant more colorfully described him as “Lyndon Johnson, Sam Rayburn and Lloyd Bentsen all wrapped up in a ornery alcoholic.”
Clearly, Bullock knew how to play hard-nosed partisan politics, but he chose not to with Bush. Not only did they work together successfully on a number of pieces of legislation, but Bullock also endorsed Bush for re-election and then later for president. Bush extended a similar olive branch by refusing to campaign against Democrats who had helped him on his agenda.
In addition to the personal relationships Bush forged, there were institutional factors in Texas that led to bipartisanship. As both chambers were in Democratic control when Bush came into office, he had little choice but to play ball with Democrats. In addition, the Texas Senate requires a two-thirds vote to get anything done. For many years, this rule had not directly impacted Democratic-Republican politics as Republicans were in such a distinct minority that they did not claim even one-third of the Senate seats. In 1992, however, Republicans reached the one-third hurdle and became players in the Senate. Bullock was forced to deal with Republicans more seriously, thus establishing a precedent for working together that carried over into the Bush governorship.
The common wisdom at the outset of Bush’s presidency was that he would reach across the aisle to centrist Democrats, but occasionally cede some of his support from bedrock conservative Republicans. For the most part, the opposite has been true. Time after time, Bush has used perfect GOP discipline in the House to pass his plans more or less intact and managed to pick off just enough Democratic support in the Senate to eke out a victory.
House Democrats have been more or less ignored by the administration. Even conservative Democrat Rep. Charlie Stenholm, who hails from the president’s home state of Texas and who actively supported President Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts, has more often than not found himself opposing the president’s legislative proposals.
In the Senate, the administration has not had the support or cooperation of the leadership, but relied on ad hoc small groups of Democrats or individual committee chairmen such as Max Baucus (Mont.) on the first tax cut.
The only true exception to Bush’s legislative strategy was in his initial days in Congress when he successfully employed a two-pronged strategy. He used his majority-plus-one strategy on the tax cut, which appealed to and united the Republican base. At the same time, Bush went out of his way to make education reform bipartisan, sometimes enduring criticism from conservative members of his party for stripping out school vouchers and greater flexibility for the states.
But Bush did not receive enough credit for his successful two-pronged strategy because of the timing of Sen. Jim Jeffords’ (Vt.) party switch and the ensuing change in party control of the Senate. Newspapers led with the Jeffords’ defection and the theme of disaffected moderates in the Republican ranks rather than with the passage of the tax cut, and education reform, which was close to enactment, was delayed until December.
But imagine if Jeffords had not switched and all had gone according to plan. The White House might have held a dual signing ceremony for the two bills, with the president flanked by then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Texas) on his right and Sen. Ted Kennedy (Mass.) on his left!
Despite the effectiveness of the initial two-pronged strategy, Bush has almost exclusively employed a majority-plus-one strategy on almost all legislation since then. The Republican House has loyally stood by Bush on the patients’ bill of rights, Trade Promotion Authority and budget resolutions to name a few.
Bush has also not shied away from direct electoral conflict as he sometimes did in Texas. Bush made an unprecedented effort in the 2002 midterm elections. He also conducted mini-campaigns on his first and current tax-cut plans, going to states with wavering Democrats and Republicans and appealing directly to the people so that they might in turn influence their Representatives. It is not clear that this strategy has worked, but it is clearly different from his Texas days and it has clearly annoyed Members of Congress. Think for example of Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), who has recently complained that the White House contacted his supporters rather than dealing with him directly.
The reasons for the different Bushes are many. First, as many commentators during the 2000 campaign noted, Texas Democrats are, on the whole, significantly more conservative than Democrats nationwide. Second, the Congress itself is much more polarized than it was, say, in 1981 when Reagan was able to attract a large block of boll weevil conservative Democrats to much of his agenda. There are far fewer districts than there once were that vote for Republican presidents and Democratic Representatives. Third, Bush has no Bob Bullock, nor any significant ally, in the Democratic leadership. This is in part because of differing ideologies, but also because Bush sought to reach out to individual Democrats — not their leaders. Fourth, the president took office after a bitter post-election dispute that raised passions on both sides. Finally, success breeds success, and Bush and Republican House leaders have been remarkably successful in holding together their own in battle after battle.
It does not make sense for Bush to forget about his base or adopt bipartisanship as a dominant strategy, but he has a history of working across the aisle that would be valuable for him to recall. By pursuing occasional bipartisan initiatives alongside his more partisan ones, Bush could not only disarm his critics to some extent, but he could accomplish more.
John C. Fortier is a research associate and political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute.