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Bush Moves by Refusing to Budge

Seen as a centrist while governor of Texas, he is testing the limits of consensus as president.

March 02, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — First in a two-part series

WASHINGTON -- From his law office in the small Texas town of Henderson, former Democratic state Rep. Paul Sadler barely recognizes George W. Bush anymore.

When Bush served as Texas governor, Sadler probably negotiated with him more extensively than any other Democrat in the Legislature, forging agreements on difficult issues from education reform to taxes. Through that partnership, Sadler came to see Bush as a conciliator committed to building consensus across party lines.

Now, as he watches Bush operate in Washington, Sadler sees "a harder edge."

"Almost all of us who had dealt with Bush, who were chairmen of committees or worked with him in Texas, have noticed the difference," Sadler says. "There has not been that collaborative spirit. I don't know if he's changed since Texas or the Democrats are different in Washington, or maybe it's both. But he is not the centrist as president that he was as governor."

At home and abroad, Bush has surprised friends and critics with the ambition of his presidential agenda -- and the forceful, often confrontational, manner in which he has pursued it.

From a deal-maker in Texas, he has morphed into a back-breaker in Washington. With Congress and allies abroad, he has displayed a pugnacious style of leadership, advancing boldly ideological ideas that test the boundaries of consensus. He often has accepted compromise only when it appeared that he had no other choice.

"I remember describing Bush as an incrementalist when he was down here, and he was," said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas. "He was not throwing the long pass. He was not a policy ideologue by any stretch of the imagination. Now all of a sudden he's this guy who is deeply and passionately committed to a heavily substantive ideological agenda."

This approach has brought Bush many successes, from a major 2001 tax cut to the United Nations resolution that returned arms inspectors to Iraq. But it also has produced a more polarizing presidency than his record in Texas, or his rhetoric in the 2000 campaign, might have predicted.

Bush advisors believe that by showing his commitment to bold change, he reinforces an image as a strong leader that could become his greatest asset for reelection. But Democrats believe Bush is unnecessarily dividing Congress and the country in ways that could threaten his legislative agenda and his prospects for a second term.

In 2000, Bush pledged to govern as a "uniter, not a divider" who would "change the tone in Washington." On one level, he has succeeded -- personal animosity between the parties isn't as intense as it was between congressional Republicans and President Clinton. But the policy differences between the two sides may be even wider than in the Clinton years.

Party-line voting in Congress has reached a new peak. According to Congressional Quarterly, Republicans went with their party on nearly 90% of the votes during Bush's first two years, while Democrats voted with their party nearly 86% of the time.

And despite the public's impulse to rally around the commander in chief in an unsettling age of global terrorism, opinion about Bush's performance and priorities is at least as polarized as it was about Clinton's. In the most recent poll conducted for The Times, 95% of Republicans said they approved of Bush's performance, while just 28% of Democrats agreed.

These centrifugal tendencies predate Bush's presidency. Party-line voting has increased steadily in Congress over the last 30 years. So has the gap between the president's approval rating among voters from his own party and those from the opposition, said Matthew Dowd, director of polling at the Republican National Committee.

Yet Bush's decisions have, in most respects, accelerated these trends.

The administration worked closely with Democrats on Bush's education reform bill and the legislative response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And on issues such as campaign finance reform, corporate accounting reform and the federalization of airport security workers, he eventually acquiesced when bipartisan congressional majorities insisted on a course he had resisted.

But mostly, Bush has pursued as hard a line in pushing his goals with Congress as he has with the world over Iraq. His intent was clear even before he took office.

Shortly after the 2000 election, Nick Calio, the first White House director of legislative affairs, went to see Bush in Texas. When Calio started to walk through concessions he might have to make to pass the tax cut bill, Bush cut him off. "Nicky," he said, "we will not negotiate with ourselves, ever."

It's a promise Bush has kept with a vengeance.

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