The Magazine

Moxie in the Executive

How not to be a lame duck.

Dec 11, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 13 • By FRED BARNES
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IN DEALING WITH the new Democratic Congress, President Bush is said to have a big choice to make. To get anything done, he either has to compromise with Democrats or ally himself with an as-yet-unformed majority coalition of Republicans and moderate-to-conservative Democrats. But there's a third option: take bold moves on his own, based on his presidential powers.

The president, stung by the defeat of Republicans in the midterm election, may be reluctant to step out on his own. The safer tack would be to negotiate with Congress to pass legislation in hopes of enhancing the legacy of his presidency. That's the normal exit strategy for presidents.

But Bush has little to lose and much to gain by acting on his own. His legacy will be determined largely by the outcome in Iraq and in the war on terror--and we may not know that verdict for years. Congressional passage of a compromise measure on, say, immigration or education reform would be nice, but neither is likely to affect his legacy in a major way. So why not be bold and go unilateral?

Here are ways the president can do just that. All they require is maximum moxie.

* Fire generals. President Lincoln did this in the Civil War and, once he put General Grant in charge, got results. Lincoln held his generals accountable. When they failed, he replaced them. Bush's generals have failed to come close to achieving their most important task: pacifying Baghdad. His attitude is, if they're wrong, I'm wrong. It should be, if they fail, they go.

* Keep John Bolton as American ambassador to the United Nations. Democrats can block his confirmation by filibuster, but they can't stop Bush from giving Bolton a job at the State Department and then assigning him to the United Nations, where he's the most effective ambassador since the days of Jeane Kirkpatrick and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. This is a no-brainer, assuming Bolton is willing.

* Stop earmarks. These special interest spending measures are an invitation to corruption. And they add significantly to overspending by Congress. Without a line-item veto, the president can't single out earmarks for destruction. What he could do, however, is announce that he will veto any appropriations bill that contains earmarks. Congress would squeal, but it would probably back down if Bush stuck to his guns.

* Give judicial nominees recess appointments. Bush did this with judges Charles Pickering and Bill Pryor. Now he could give recess appointments to all his U.S. appeals court nominees, some eight of them, whom Democrats refuse to give floor votes. The judges' terms would run out at the end of the new Congress in late 2008. But even in that short period of time, their impact would be felt.

* Talk up the military option in Iran. Not with a public announcement, but in leaks. The Iranians seem to believe that they're home free in pursuing nuclear weapons with American forces tied down in Iraq. But we're not tied down. The destruction of Iranian nuclear sites would be carried out by airpower. Leaking the details of a contingency plan for doing this would provoke international debate and put the mullahs in a less truculent mood.

* Apply the Kennedy model to North Korea. Columnist Charles Krauthammer urged the president to repeat the warning that President Kennedy gave to the Soviets after they installed missiles in Cuba aimed at the United States. "It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union," Kennedy declared in 1962. Bush could update this with Kim Jong Il, telling him if a rogue nuke hits the United States or its allies, the United States will hit North Korea. That should deter him.

* Push a radical energy independence plan. Bush may need Congress's assent on this one, or at least on parts of it. But the idea would be to try everything conceivable, all at once, to free the United States from strategic dependence on Middle East oil and from the possibility of a crippling cutoff imposed by America's foes. Both liberal notions (higher CAFE standards) and conservative ones (more domestic oil production), plus fuel diversification, lucrative subsidies for hybrid autos, more spending on research, and massive energy exploration would be included.

* A final gift to the world. As Bush is leaving office in January 2009, he could implement the military option and take out all of Iran's nuclear facilities. The world would be aghast--but also relieved and, without admitting it, enormously grateful. The new president would have one less crisis to deal with. So would the United Nations. Terrorists might respond, but we could brace for that. Anything they did would pale next to a nuclear attack by Iran.