The Magazine

The Gergen Temptation

Will Bush fall for the advice of the Establishment?

Nov 14, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 09 • By FRED BARNES
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PRESIDENT BUSH DIDN'T TAKE THE HINT. Clean house, find fresh blood, replace senior White House staff--and this will assure success in the final three years of your presidency, Bush was told. When he didn't respond, those offering the president advice in public got specific. Get rid of Karl Rove, the key presidential adviser, and things will get better. Bush ignored that recommendation, too. Then Rove himself was addressed. Your peers in the White House are turning against you and debating whether you should be fired, the Washington Post informed him on the front page. Besides, you're not only hurting the president by staying, you're making it harder for the press secretary, Scott McClellan, to do his job. Rove, the symbol of Bush intransigence, stayed put.

There's a classic pattern here. It's Washington's way of taming a president, getting him to knuckle under. And it's always offered as if the Washington political establishment--a center-left conglomerate of officials of previous administrations, the permanent bureaucracy, lobbyists, consultants, old party hacks, and the media--had the president's best interests at heart.

The establishment is most influential when a president or other political leader is at a low point (as Bush surely is). In op-eds, news stories, speeches, and TV appearances, establishment figures outline a recovery plan. In Bush's case, it's this: Apologize publicly for your White House sins, especially the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame; soften your policies, particularly in Iraq; start cooperating with Democrats; and fire Rove. Do this and good times will roll again.

For Bush's consumption, there's a Republican twist to the advice. Two establishment mouthpieces who served in Republican administrations, David Gergen and Ken Duberstein, have urged Bush to act like President Reagan after Iran-contra. Reagan rejuvenated his presidency and left Washington on a high note, they claim, and Bush can do the same.

The Reagan recovery they describe, however, is largely fictional. Yes, Reagan apologized for a guns-for-hostages deal with Iran. But he didn't believe a word of it. When I interviewed Reagan a few weeks later, he insisted there had been no guns-for-hostages arrangement. Duberstein boasted in the New York Times that Justice Anthony Kennedy was "confirmed overwhelmingly by a Democratic Senate" in 1987. He didn't mention what preceded it: the historic rejection of Robert Bork for that same Supreme Court seat. Bork, by the way, blames a feckless White House, stocked with fresh talent, for doing nothing to help his nomination.

Reagan's final years in office were ones of presidential weakness. He was humiliated by the Senate when it brushed aside his ardent appeals and overrode his veto of a highway bill. To give the president some innocuous talking points, the White House dreamed up something called the "economic bill of rights." It had no connection with political reality. His success in foreign policy was cooked in the cake from his pre-scandal days.

What the Gergens and Dubersteins are offering Bush is the establishment option. And it has been enthusiastically endorsed by Democratic congressional leaders--and the more partisan the Democrat, the more enthusiastic they are. Naturally, firing Rove is a step Bush must take if he and Democrats are to "come together," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and his House counterpart Nancy Pelosi said in a letter addressed to the president but sent to the press.

The other possible course for Bush is the Rove option. That means Bush would retain his loyal staff, pursue a conservative agenda consistent with his campaign promises, and continue to thumb his nose at the Washington priesthood. Bush loathes Washington. He doesn't socialize with the establishment crowd or seek its advice. It's this strategy that irks Washington the most. In pursuing it, Bush accepts polarization as a fact of life and wins victories (legislative and electoral) not by heavily diluting his conservatism but by assembling narrow conservative majorities. This is the approach that gained Bush a second term.

You can tell which option Bush is likely to take from Rove's work schedule. He arrives daily at 7 a.m. He and Bush counselor Michael Gerson are working on next year's State of the Union address. Rove is the chief administration mediator with congressional Republicans on the touchy immigration issue. He's talking to public intellectuals, think tank scholars, and business leaders, and arranging for them to come to the White House for brainstorming sessions. Bush wants to unveil new proposals in 2006 since those he touted in his first campaign have been either enacted or defeated. Rove, I'm told, got teary-eyed when talking about how Bush and White House staffers have stood by him.

After an interlude of public silence as the grand jury investigating the CIA leak wound down, Rove has begun talking privately to the press again. Last week, he spoke to a Republican group in the Capitol. He cancelled several political speeches this fall, but he's scheduled to make a public appearance this week in Washington, addressing the Federalist Society.

There's a new reason Bush finds the establishment option unattractive. He tried a modified version of it this year and it didn't work. Call it the "purple detour"--you know, a mixture of red and blue. It didn't prompt a favorable reaction from Democrats, but it did alienate the president from his conservative base.

For much of 2005, Bush scarcely mentioned Iraq. He put off an attempt to make his tax cuts permanent and got no credit for that. Bush declared himself willing to raise Social Security taxes as part of a larger reform package. Democrats continued their lockstep opposition. He proposed a New Deal-like recovery program after Katrina, including new antipoverty efforts. Democratic attacks on his response to Katrina were unabated. He chose a Supreme Court nominee, Harriet Miers, in hopes of averting a major confirmation clash.

Did a single Democrat step forward to say now there's room for serious compromise with Bush? I can't think of one. Did anyone from the pantheon of Washington establishment figures commend the president publicly for moving in a new direction? Not that I recall. The takeaway from this experience is that polarization reigns and reasonable compromise is impossible. The alternative is to cave to the opposition and become a political eunuch. But why would any president want to do that?

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.