Bush Steps Forward to Lead His Party

In his news conference Tuesday morning, President Bush showed rare signs of willingness to step forward and lead his political party. He called out Democrats for their opposition to his wiretapping program and the reauthorization of the Patriot Act. He also took credit for the low level of unemployment. Many Republicans felt it was about time, and that Bush should have been talking this way for months.

Whatever one thinks of his performance as President (the public’s reviews are currently poor), Bush has been inconsistent as a party leader during his second term, at times showing signs of political leadership but at others leaving his allies out to dry.

In a little-noticed move, the Senate last week narrowly defeated a measure by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) that would have used the Social Security surplus to establish personal ownership of accounts in the retirement program. Eight Republican senators crossed over to vote against, joining all 45 Democrats. This 46-to-53 vote was not another instance of Republicans’ rebelling against President Bush. However, the story of how Social Security reform became Bush’s orphaned child is typical of the President’s lack of leadership that has so outraged Republicans in Congress and led, in part, to their current rebellion on other issues.

Although he was bold enough to campaign on personal accounts for Social Security, and even bold enough to travel the country speaking in basic terms about reforming the program, Bush never put a proposal on the table and challenged Congress to take his side. His reticence left many Republican congressmen with no choice but to distance themselves from a non-existent proposal. The details of a real presidential proposal could have reassured at least some beneficiaries and even mitigated the political damage to some Republican members of Congress. Had Bush led, he could have made serious progress and even turned this issue into the asset it should be.

The hesitation on Social Security Reform began with the bipartisan panel that had been charged in Bush’s first term to propose a solution. Thus he avoided handling the issue himself and later walked away from it without ever having put a concrete proposal on the table. Republicans in Congress were left dangling as Bush moved on to other things. Democrats, of course, had no incentive whatsoever to do anything productive on this serious issue, preferring instead to let Bush shepherd his fellow Republicans over the cliff and then walk away.

The same story can be told on the issue of tax reform, another political orphan that Bush figuratively fathered and then abandoned into the hands of a bipartisan panel. When the President’s team failed to present its own vision, the bipartisan panel produced an uninspired plan that was acceptable to no one. Tax reform is now officially dead, save for the vain efforts of a few isolated Republicans. Again, it would be hard to point to events and suggest that Bush led or even took this issue seriously.

It was more of the same in this year’s State of the Union Address, when Bush proposed another blue-ribbon panel to examine the issue of mandatory government spending. This panel would have to deal with problems that include the new Medicare prescription drug program he proposed himself.

Having failed to enact Social Security reform, Bush at least deserves credit for measures that have modestly tightened state Medicaid programs. But generally, these were unheralded except insofar as they have made some Republican governors — particularly Matt Blunt of Missouri — extremely unpopular. His new proposed panel on spending offers no more promise than the earlier ones, and it is particularly disturbing that the President tried unsuccessfully to recruit Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin to serve on it.

Bush has now called for a line-item veto, but his failure to exercise a single veto in five years makes his spoken opposition to excessive spending appear disingenuous. His acceptance of an eviscerated No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 and his willingness to sign other bills he opposed — namely the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform and the business-killing Sarbanes-Oxley Act — also indicate a lack of leadership.

On the topic of Iraq, Bush on Tuesday defended his policy of staying the course, avoiding any commitment to end the occupation. While it would be appropriate to give some reassurance that there will not be an endless occupation, Bush simply kicked the question down the road, stating that it would be the job of "future Presidents" to decide. Democrats are lying in wait to capitalize on this weakness. If the public is weary of the war now, it will be even less amenable to talk of "staying the course" by this November, and Republicans may well pay the price at the polls.

Unless the President makes a bold proposal and offers to lead, the Republican Congress will remain without a defined agenda. The issues are potentially there to be exploited – "Killing the Death Tax," the federal marriage amendment and the confirmation of appellate-court judges. But for now, as they struggle to overcome the scandal allegations that have marked 2006 so far, congressional Republicans remain mired in uncertainty.