The Magazine

Let's Have an Argument

Aug 13, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 45 • By DAVID BROOKS, FOR THE EDITORS
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MOST PRESIDENTS RETREAT to the bully pulpit after suffering a setback, but George W. Bush has done the opposite. Following the Jeffords defection, President Bush went down into the trenches, conducting detailed negotiations with members of Congress, and visiting the Capitol building to personally move legislation.

This has yielded some startling victories. The Bush administration seemed to have painted itself into a corner on the patients’ bill of rights, but it is now likely to get a bill it can live with. The administration supported a bill to ban human cloning; the House passed it by 103 votes. House moderates seemed all set to defect from the Bush energy plan, as they had defected on arsenic regulations and other environmental matters. But after intensive White House lobbying, Republican unity held. These victories are a tribute to Bush, Dick Cheney, White House legislative director Nick Calio, and perhaps most of all to Tom DeLay’s always impressive whip operation.

But these are tactical victories. In some cases, the administration has merely succeeded in promoting a slightly more responsible version of a Democratic initiative. If the Bush administration is going to seize the initiative on big issues, if it is going to win strategic victories as well as tactical ones, if it is going to be able to strike fear into the hearts of Senate Democrats, then President Bush is going to have to use the bully pulpit to frame issues and shape public opinion.

This has so far been the most unrhetorical presidency of modern times. And the media abhors a vacuum. Because Bush hasn’t been dominating the airwaves, the media commentators have been able to. Bush makes liberals in the media more powerful by not using the power of the White House to offer a competing view.

This inability, or unwillingness, to articulate an argument has hampered the administration on issue after issue. When presidents can’t get their initiatives passed, they always say it is because they can’t get their message out. Usually that’s bunk. But in the case of the Bush administration, it’s true. For example, substantively the Bush administration proposed a balanced energy policy, which had a nice mix of conservation measures, infrastructure improvements, and supply enhancements. But the plan was presented so badly, it was cast as a production-only sop to corporations. Then when the Bushies pointed to conservation measures that were always in the plan, they were seen as weakly trying to placate the environmentalists.

Earlier this summer, President Bush went abroad and produced several impressive achievements. He and his administration have done a good job of promoting missile defense—making it look inevitable to Russia and the Europeans. He scuttled bad treaties like the Kyoto global warming accord and an unenforceable germ warfare agreement. But these were all back-room successes. In each case, the Bush administration failed to deliver the sort of reasoned argument that would have explained why it was taking the position it did.

On Kyoto, for example, Bush behaved admirably. During the Clinton administration, the Department of Energy estimated that implementing the treaty would shrink the GDP by 4 percent. No Senate is going to ratify a treaty that will send the economy into a steep recession. Nonetheless, knowing that the treaty was never going to be implemented here, Bush could have gone along cynically. That’s the European—and Clintonian—way. He could have pretended to support it, knowing full well that it would never be sent to the Senate floor for a ratification vote. Or, he could, as he did, take the honest approach.

The American people, who like to see their leaders acting honestly instead of cynically (the European nations shot down coal-inhibiting regulations in Brussels, even as they trumpeted their virtue on Kyoto), could have been rallied on this issue. But President Bush never made the case. So on Kyoto as on so many other issues, Bush was cast as the bad guy. This encouraged Democrats to take more aggressive lines on a whole range of economic and environmental matters.

It’s often said that Bush doesn’t enjoy the bully pulpit role. Or that he’s not good at it. The second assertion seems to us false. Bush is no Bill Clinton; he is no master of off-the-cuff wonkery. But when he gives a set speech, he does it well. The Republican convention speech was a success. His Inaugural Address was a glowing success. Early in his presidential campaign, he gave a series of thoughtful and innovative speeches that gave a lift to his candidacy.

As for not enjoying the speechifying role, well, right now it looks like a few speeches might make the difference between a transformational presidency and a merely managerial one. If Bush is going to break the deadlock that is stifling action in Washington, he is going to have to articulate a long-term vision.