By Richard S. Dunham Representative Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) is exactly the kind of Democratic lawmaker President Bush ought to be wooing. Adamantly free-trade, a firm believer in the New Economy, and a leader of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, the Golden State congresswoman was prepared to heed Bush's call to work together on bipartisan solutions to the nation's problems. Just one problem: Six months into his Presidency, she's still waiting to hear from Bush.
Well, technically there was a call from a White House functionary inviting Tauscher to join a large group of legislators for a trade session with the President. When she arrived, she discovered it was nothing more than a Presidential photo op designed to showcase the Administration's bridge-building with Capitol Hill.
Tauscher says Bush never asked the Democratic free-traders for advice or input. Rather than outreach, the event created outrage. "I was a potted palm standing next to a bunch of potted palms," Tauscher says. "These were people [in the Administration] who just couldn't care less" what moderate Democrats think.
CHERRY-PICKING. The episode highlights one of the Bush Presidency's biggest wasted opportunities. After running on the pledge of being a "different kind" of politician who would "change of the tone" of Washington by reaching out to the other party, Bush has done little to build truly bipartisan coalitions.
Instead of working with moderate Democrats to create "center-out" supermajorities in both houses of Congress, the Administration has tried to pick off a few of the most conservative Democrats to create narrow majorities on contentious issues. Only on education reform has Bush been a true consensus-builder. "He's basically trying to drive his agenda with Republican votes," says Al From, chief executive of the Democratic Leadership Council. "[Centrist Democrats] expected him to be a much more bipartisan President."
As a result of the partisan posturing, Bush has alienated a large bloc of lawmakers who could have -- and should have -- become frequent allies. That'll make it much harder for the President to get his way on a host of issues, from trade liberalization to the environment to a new prescription-drug benefit for seniors. "People of good will came back [after the 2000 election] willing to work together," Tauscher says. "It's very short-sighted."
REASONS FOR AVOIDING. White House officials see things differently. They point out Bush's reaching out to such liberal lions as Senator Ted Kennedy (Mass.) and centrist dealmakers as Senator John Breaux of Louisiana. Ari Fleischer, the President's press secretary, points to a July 10-11 Gallup Poll indicating that 59% of Americans say Bush "has cooperated enough with Democrats in Congress," while 32% say he hasn't. "The prospect for bipartisan action on a host of issues is strong," says Fleischer.
Meanwhile, Republican strategists say they have good reasons to avoid dealing with Democratic Leadership Council lawmakers, despite their ideological similarities. They view these so-called "New Democrats" as committed partisans who have no interest in helping a Republican President succeed. They argue that many of the prominent DLCers -- including Senators Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, John Edwards of North Carolina, and DLC Chair Evan Bayh of Indiana -- harbor Presidential ambitions.
Besides, many of the Democratic centrists represent Republican-leaning districts, GOP strategists note. Rather than working with these Democrats -- and thereby boosting their reelection prospects -- GOP operatives would like to defeat them in the 2002 election. In the short term, that means isolating Democratic moderates and forcing them to make politically unpopular votes that could hurt their reelection prospects.
STALEMATE. Case in point: The fight over Presidential Trade Promotion Authority, formerly known as "Fast Track." The New Democrats, along with many moderate, pro-union Republican lawmakers, want to include protections for workers and the environment in any trade-promotion legislation.
However, the White House has signaled it prefers hard-line legislation from Representative Phil Crane (R-Ill.) that includes no labor or enviro protections in trade negotiations. While Crane's legislation has little chance of becoming law, GOP leaders want to force a vote so they can tell corporate contributors that moderates such as Tauscher are "antibusiness."
That's not only ridiculous, it's counterproductive. By working with pro-trade Democrats, the White House could put together a winning coalition in a matter of months. Instead, the stalemate over trade -- a top priority of the business community -- could drag into 2002.
NO COUP. Bush's rigidity has emboldened Democratic moderates to strike out on their own. At the Democratic Leadership Council's annual gathering, being held July 15-17 in Indianapolis, centrists from the Democratic side of the aisle are discussing ways to drive the policy debate in Washington -- and in state capitals around the country.
In a perfect world, President I'm-a-Different-Kind-of-Republican would have sped to Indy to talk bipartisan turkey. Just think: That would have been a Bush coup. Instead, while Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe is telling the DLC why moderates are important to his party, the President will be tending to the potted palms back in the West Wing. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online