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Two Bushes: One Flips, The Other Doesn't


June 22, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. All Rights Reserved.

President Bush hung tough on missile defense in Europe last week despite a barrage of criticism. But back home he folded like a bad poker hand on the U.S. Navy firing range in Vieques, Puerto Rico.

For months he ignored opinion polls that showed his tax cut wasn't popular. But this week he abandoned his principled opposition to energy price controls amid negative polls.

He's also sticking by his high-risk pledge to reform Social Security, despite skittish Republicans on Capitol Hill. But on steel quotas and ethanol subsidies, he's surrendered to Congress without a whimper, much less a fight.

Meet the two George W. Bushes. One is the president of high principle, the other is the ruthless political pragmatist. He's Dr. Reagan and Mr. Clinton. Sometimes he stands tall like the Gipper, but at other times he can flip faster than Dick Morris.

All presidents must make compromises with the real political world. But what's striking about Mr. Bush's first six months is his contradictory political style. Bill Clinton was a consistent trimmer, always looking to hedge his bets and cut deals. Mr. Bush is a conviction politician until he isn't, whereupon he surrenders with brutal, almost jarring dispatch.

This week I called around to Republicans, both in and outside the White House, to see if there was some madness to his method. And there seems to be. When examining Mr. Bush's policy surrenders, they suggest several guideposts:

*Big vs. little. Mr. Bush tends to hold firmest on his signature themes, especially the issues he campaigned on. That's why he didn't bend until the end on taxes and is marching ahead on Social Security. He's also learned from his father's failure not to get crosswise with a big, active GOP constituency, such as the NRA or right-to-lifers.

But on secondary matters, especially those that distract from his main goals, Mr. Bush has no qualms about caving. That explains his early swoon to liberals on education, which was more important to swing voters than to the right.

It also explains his protectionist detour for Big Steel. The industry's lobbying threatened to interfere with his goal of getting Congress to grant him the power to negotiate free-trade deals. So he decided to pacify the Steel Caucus, overruling all of his economic advisers. He'd better hope this bribe works, because higher steel prices won't help the economy.

*Red vs. Blue. Last fall's famous electoral map figures into every Bush decision, both in its closeness and its geography. Steel quotas are popular in West Virginia and Ohio, which he won, and in Pennsylvania, where he came close.

Mr. Bush also didn't mind insisting that California live with ethanol gas requirements. He has little chance on the left coast in 2004 anyway. But ethanol subsidies are popular in Iowa, South Dakota and Minnesota, all of which will have hot Senate races in 2002.

*Cutting his losses. Mr. Bush isn't one to go down in glorious, principled defeat. Just ask the Navy. He bailed out on Vieques without warning to the military, though not long after his chief political strategist met with Republican New York Gov. George Pataki.

Mr. Bush figured the bombing would lose in a Puerto Rican referendum next year. So why not make a political virtue of necessity? By leaving now he could also do a favor for Mr. Pataki, who wants powerful New York union chief Dennis Rivera, who was born in Puerto Rico, to stay neutral when he runs for re-election next year.

This week's White House reversal on energy price controls was just as abrupt. For months Mr. Bush and his aides have been arguing bravely against them. Only last week he sent Vice President Cheney to Capitol Hill to say they wouldn't budge.

But epiphanies happen. This week, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission imposed controls, the White House gladly went along. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer defended them as a "market-based mitigation plan," an instant spin classic. Other spokesmen insisted that FERC is an "independent" agency, which is technically true but politically irrelevant. Federal agencies full of presidential appointees don't make 5-0 decisions that presidents dislike.

The real story is that Mr. Bush had been told that even Republicans in Congress might vote for some form of price controls. And then he'd have to cast an unpopular veto.

"I think the FERC is letting this cup pass from their lips," says Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, a Republican who supported California Democrat Dianne Feinstein's price-control bill. "You would have had a large Republican vote for this" -- perhaps as many as 12 senators -- "had it got to the floor." He correctly assumes there was a "huge sigh of relief" at the White House over the FERC decision.

All of this should at least put to rest the media cliche that Mr. Bush is only "governing from the right." While he's more instinctively conservative than his father, he's also more of a wheeler-dealer pol. Look for further compromises, starting with HMO regulation.

Taken individually, each of Mr. Bush's policy retreats so far is politically understandable. The danger for him is that when added together they begin to look like a pattern of taking the path of least political resistance. Democrats will notice and begin to test him again andagain.

Sooner or later Mr. Bush will have to show Congress he's willing to fight for something he believes in, even at the risk of losing. His first Supreme Court nomination might be a good place to start.

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