I was on the radio yesterday with Drew Westen and something that came up was the surprisingly persistent myth that George W Bush was some kind of legislative steamroller who somehow coerced Congress into doing things it didn’t want to do through magic narrative powers that Barack Obama unaccountably fails to use. If anything, I would say the reverse is true. Bush’s first term in office featured him signing two significant pieces of legislation — the Sarbanes-Oxley financial regulation bill and the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill — that both he and the majority of the Republican Party clearly opposed. Bush let himself get bullied by congressional Democrats into slightly watering their initiatives down rather than vetoing popular measures. He got his tax cuts passed the same way Obama got ARRA, Dodd-Frank, and the ACA passed — he watered them down a bit to attract the votes of pivotal legislators.
Then comes the part of the story where I think most people lose the plot, things like No Child Left Behind and the 2003 Medicare bill. The thing about these laws that’s crucial to understand is that their Democratic supporters genuinely wanted these bills to pass. I know people who worked with Ted Kennedy and George Miller on NCLB. They’re very proud of their work. They weren’t cowed into submission by Bush, they were excited about Bush’s willingness to deliver Republican votes for some ideas they like. It’s much the same with Team Baucus and the Medicare bill. This is important because this is exactly the ingredient that’s been missing from the Obama years. The White House keeps hoping it will find Republican partners who aren’t just reluctantly willing to work with it on things, but positively eager to do so. But time and again the Chuck Grassley or Lindsay Graham figure ends up folding faced with the superior party discipline of the GOP and the highly mobilized and ideologically homogeneous GOP base. This is a huge problem for the White House that Bush didn’t really face during his first term. But it’s not one you can solve with more or better intimidation. Then, as Scott Lemieux points out, came the second term:
I’ve asked this before, but since I’ve never received a decent answer let me ask again: for people who believe in the Green Lantern theory of domestic presidential power, how do you explain the near-total lack of major legislation passed during George W. Bush’s second term, including a failure to even get a congressional vote on his signature initiative to privatize Social Security? He didn’t give enough speeches? He wasn’t ruthless enough? Help me out here.
What’s interesting here, I think, is that in 2008 you suddenly do have a rash of important legislation. That’s the ’08 stimulus bill, the Housing and Economic Recovery Act, and of course the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Did Bush regain his voice? No. The policy agenda shifted to subjects where Bush was in substantive agreement with large blocs of congressional Democrats. Which is just to say what should be obvious: Members of Congress are adult men and women. They’re vain, proud, stubborn, somewhat egomaniacal politicians. And a president’s ability to come to agreements with them about things is largely determined by their genuine desire (or lack thereof) to reach agreements.