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Less than six months into his unusual presidency, George W. Bush has begun telling his followers that he is ready to go back to Crawford if he doesnt get his way on his conservative policies.
The threat comes as Bush is losing control of Washingtons political agenda in the wake of the Democratic takeover of the U.S. Senate, his sagging poll numbers, and the Senates passage of a patients' bill of rights last week. The warnings about going back to Crawford the site of his Texas ranch appear to have been uttered in frustration over his political troubles and to keep Republicans in line.
Conservative columnist Robert D. Novak reported that Bush issued one of his return-to-Crawford warnings on June 27 during a White House meeting with moderate House Republicans who are backing an alternative version of the patients' bill of rights sponsored by Rep. Ernie Fletcher of Kentucky.
Meeting with Fletcher and his supporters at the White House Bush appeared to draw a line in the sand when he indicated he always could return to Crawford, Tex., if the liberal health juggernaut grinds him down, Novak wrote. [Washington Post, July 5, 2001]
Bush has vowed to veto the Senates version of the patients bill of rights because it would grant patients the right to sue their health maintenance organizations over bad medical judgments. Bush wants the GOP-controlled House to dilute the Senate-passed version, particularly on the issue of suing HMOs.
Besides the patients bill of rights, Bush finds himself battling congressional momentum in favor of new campaign-finance restrictions. In the context of Bush fighting those two popular bills, Los Angeles Times political writer Ronald Brownstein also picked up word of Bush issuing a back to Crawford threat, this one recounted by a GOP lobbyist close to the administration.
Bush continues to send a signal that, Im going to do what I want to do, and if nobody likes it, Im going to go back to Crawford, Brownstein wrote, quoting the lobbyist. [LAT, July 5, 2001] Presumably, Bush would serve out his four-year term before returning to his ranch.
Principle or Petulance
Republicans present these back to Crawford threats as a sign of Bushs principled leadership, but the warnings could sound to others like a petulant child vowing to take his ball and go home if he doesnt get his way.
Some might see a tinge of megalomania or at least conceit in the threat, as if Bush thinks he is so vital to the nation that his departure in a huff must be avoided at all costs. This attitude has shown through in other recent remarks in which he expresses unbridled confidence in his skills as president, including his presumed ability to judge the character of other leaders he barely knows.
Gone is the tentativeness of 20 months ago, of the lost man of the early Republican debates, wrote Ronald Reagans speechwriter Peggy Noonan in an article for the Wall Street Journals editorial page. In its place seems an even-keeled confidence, even a robust faith in his own perceptions and judgments.
Exhibit One in Noonans thesis was Bushs performance in his first overseas presidential trip, which she said he completed with a deep feeling of satisfaction at how hed done and who hed been. [WSJ, June 25, 2001]
Yet, Bushs trip was marked by strong criticism from some of Washingtons closest allies in Europe over Bush's unilateral rejection of the Kyoto global warming treaty and his insistence on pressing ahead with a strategic missile defense even if it violates the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. Opposition to Bush and his policies came both from top leaders and from street protests.
The trip ended with Bushs remarkable claim that he had gauged the soul of Russian President Vladimir Putin and found the autocratic former KGB officer to be a straightforward, honest man.
After the trip, the U.S. news media continued a six-month pattern of praising Bushs performance as better than expected. Along those lines, the press judged Bushs European sojourn as gaffe-free.
But the Putin remark did not sit well. A Washington Post editorial, for instance, cited a string of post-summit actions by Putins government -- cracking down on political dissent, shuttering critical media outlets and continuing the brutal counterinsurgency campaign in Chechnya.
Were still hoping to get that glimpse of Mr. Putins soul that President Bush talked about, the editorial said. Mr. Putins behavior during the weeks since the summit raises a question: Will President Bush respond? [WP, July 5, 2001]
Proud to Be the Nation
Another question arises from Noonans observation that Bushs even-keeled confidence has replaced the prior tentativeness. Was Noonan simply playing the role of sycophant? Bush has shown continued unsteadiness to nearly everyone else.
When Bush ventured to the Jefferson Memorial on July 2 and got the predictable question about what July Fourth meant to him, his response bordered on the incoherent.
Its an unimaginable honor to be the president during the Fourth of July, Bush said. It means what these words say, for starters. The great inalienable rights of our country. Were blessed with such values in America. And I its Im a proud man to be the nation based upon such wonderful values.
While his backers might see brilliance in Bushs leadership, others might reasonably wonder if Bush has any sense of the grandeur that emanates from the Declaration of Independence and the founding principles of the United States.
During the recount battle in Florida, did Bush think about the Declarations ringing description of democracy as the guarantor of the unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness?
Following that phrase come the words: That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
The Florida Test
Americans might have expected a person understanding the "unimaginable honor" of being president of the United States to do all he could to ensure as full and fair a recount in Florida as possible, especially since voting-machine malfunctions and other irregularities fell hardest on poor communities of elderly Jews and African-Americans.
Yet, Bush did not rely on the consent of the governed. He claimed the highest office in the land, although Al Gore won the national popular vote by more than a half million ballots and was the clear choice of a plurality of voters in the key state of Florida (though thousands of their ballots were thrown away and hundreds of voters were turned away after falsely being labeled felons).
Bush relied on his familys powerful allies in the Florida state government, in the national news media and in the federal courts. In late November, Bush's campaign even sent hooligans to Florida to rough up Democrats and intimidate vote counters in Miami-Dade county.
To finish off the power grab, Bush sent his lawyers to ask five conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court to take the unprecedented step of stopping a statewide Florida recount, effectively handing Bush the White House.
Now, less than six months into his four-year term, Bush is confronting his first legislative setbacks. But he's not looking for compromise with the Democrats who represent the party that arguably won the consent of the governed last November, nor is he interested in the political agenda that got the most votes.
Bush is telling his supporters that its either his way or the highway. In this case, however, Bush says if he doesnt get his way, hes ready to take the highway back to Crawford.