Bush's Friend Rubin

It was harsh enough when former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin last weekend called on fellow Democrats to reject President Bush’s proposed bipartisan commission on curbing runaway entitlements. It was all the more stinging because six weeks earlier, at a private White House dinner, Bush had made a personal appeal for Rubin’s help on the project.

On Jan. 23, the president pulled Bill Clinton’s secretary of the Treasury aside to make an extended plea that they work together on his commission to find ways to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid costs. Rubin’s public answer came in a Bloomberg Television interview, broadcast March 4, when he urged Democratic non-cooperation with Bush’s commission. Instead, he said, Democratic leaders in Congress should demand that the president join them in a "fiscal commission" that would clearly be aimed at rolling back Bush’s tax cuts.

Rubin’s slap in the face raises questions about how much Bush really has learned about Washington in over five years. He still seems to confuse intensely partisan liberal Democrats like Bob Rubin with the late Bob Bullock, the centrist Democratic lieutenant governor with whom Bush collaborated as governor of Texas. Bush also seems dedicated to using the bipartisan commission, despite the miserable failure of his panels dealing with Social Security and tax reform.

Although he is the target of relentless assaults from Democrats, Bush dreams of replicating in chilly Washington the warmer political climate of Austin. He also may be intrigued by returning to the bipartisan establishment that long ago held sway in the nation’s capital. A 21st-century establishment seemed represented Jan. 23 at a White House dinner honoring Alan Greenspan’s retirement as Federal Reserve chairman. Rubbing elbows with Bush administration senior officials were such exalted Democrats as Lawrence Summers, Vernon Jordan and Robert Rubin.

Bush appears ill at ease in such surroundings, giving the impression he would rather be at his Texas ranch. Many of the 40 or so invited guests expected an evening of tributes, but all they got was Bush’s pre-dinner remarks. The early-to-bed president rose after the meal, indicating the evening had ended well before 10 p.m.

But it was not quite over. Bush made a beeline for Rubin. As the other guests stared, Bush and Rubin stood facing each other and engaged in conversation for fully 10 minutes. The observers were not let in on the secret, but sources who talked to Rubin say the president asked him to cooperate on the entitlement reform commission.

For Bush to make a third try at a bipartisan commission signifies the triumph of hope over experience. The Social Security and Tax commissions were dominated by former Democratic senators (the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan and John Breaux, respectively) who came up with products that neither met Republican specifications nor appealed to Democrats. But Moynihan (once a senior aide in the Nixon White House) and Breaux occasionally strayed from the Democratic gospel. Not so Rubin.

Rubin’s left-wing activism dates back to the McGovern era a generation ago when, as a hot young investment banker, he was a volunteer party fund-raiser who impressed older Democratic workers as rigidly doctrinaire. In 2004, Rubin was an economic adviser to presidential candidate John Kerry. In 2005, he urged congressional Democrats not to cooperate with Bush on Social Security reform.

So, why would the president think Rubin would help him? Perhaps Bush was naive and misled by superficial impressions. Rubin, now chairman of Citigroup, is a handsome, well-dressed, soft-spoken, charming multi-millionaire whom Bush might have mistaken for one of his rich Republican friends from Texas.

Rubin showed last weekend in his Bloomberg interview that he is nothing of the kind, as even the president should recognize. His "fiscal commission" is clearly intended to end up with restored upper bracket tax rates that would regraduate the income tax. Rubin is a typical Democratic operative eager to regain control of the federal government beginning with the 2006 elections and uninterested in cooperating with George W. Bush. Is Rubin’s slap in the face enough to convince the president that seeking prominent Democrats on bipartisan commissions at this point in history is a fool’s errand?