George Bush went into the lion’s den yesterday, addressing the new Democratic Party majority in Congress in a closed-door meeting intended to help smooth the way for bipartisanship. By all accounts, Bush did well, using self-deprecating humor to defuse the tension between the White House and Congressional Democrats. The meeting may come too late, though, to bridge the partisan gulf on the war:
President Bush, forced by circumstance to reach out to some of his strongest adversaries, appealed directly to House Democrats on Saturday to work with him to reform the immigration system, limit the cost of Social Security, curb the consumption of gasoline and balance the federal budget.
Visiting the Democrats’ annual retreat for the first time since 2001, the president told lawmakers there are “big things” they could accomplish by working together and sought to defuse any bad blood with self-deprecating humor. He opened his public remarks with an allusion to his tendency to mispronounce the name of the rival party by calling it the Democrat Party, seen by many party activists as a calculated insult.
“I appreciate you inviting the head of the Republic Party,” Bush said to laughter. He drew scattered applause a few moments later when he used the correct name in calling on the “Democratic Party” to work with him to address the mounting future liabilities of Social Security and Medicare.
Democrats rose to politely applaud Bush before and after the speech, a sign of the outwardly cordial and respectful nature of the day’s session.
Democrats had a rare opportunity to question the president directly, using a private session after his speech to press him on Iraq, immigration, global warming, the deficit and the absence of Hurricane Katrina and veterans’ issues in his recent State of the Union address. While Bush asked Democrats to keep the conversation private, some people present said he gave no ground on his basic position on the war but was upfront in talking about its impact on the populace.
The results of the meeting appear mixed. Democrats welcomed the President politely, and appreciated his humor, and Nancy Pelosi said afterwards that she hoped for consensus and engagement in three areas — energy independence, immigration, and jobs innovation. While the latter sounds like the kind of fluff that provides little more than grist for self-congratulatory stump speeches (because the private sector generates more innovation than bureaucracies), the other two issues are significant and important considerations that relate to national security.
However, the primary issues of national security have not been bridged by this meeting, nor does it appear the White House wanted to press for that in this meeting. Pelosi threatened to block any effort by the administration to use military force against Iran, although it is not at all clear that the White House wants to do so anyway. She also wants to pursue a “no-confidence” vote in the House on the surge strategy to match the resolutions currently under debate in the Senate.
While that would have no legal effect in the US, both will have a massive impact on Bush’s ability to hold his international coalition together. Parliamentary democracies know full well what a no-confidence vote means; it means that the Bush administration has no political reservoir of strength, and nations inclined to hesitate on Iraq, Iran, and Syria know they can outlast the Bush administration. It’s a recipe for two years of stalling while Iran gets its nukes.
Clearly the Democrats want to play to the anti-war activists that helped them win their majorities. However, the White House bears some responsibility for this as well. After 9/11, the Bush administration should have made appearances at these caucus meetings each year, at least as a show of unity in the face of war. Unlike almost all of Congressional leadership, which represents the interests of the caucus, the White House represents the interests of the entire nation. (The Speaker is somewhat analogous in the legislative branch.) In the aftermath of the worst attacks on American soil, the President should have actively engaged the Democrats as a means to keep channels open and to pursue bipartisanship on the war — making it an effort of all Americans and not just the responsibility of the Republican Party.
Would the Democrats have responded? At least some of them might have, although certainly not all of them. We would find ourselves with at least somewhat more resolve to face the enemy in their backyard, and while it might have meant altering some of the policies that the administration put in place to fight the war, the commitment to it would almost certainly be stronger than it is today. At the very least, it would have made clear where bipartisanship failed had the Democrats failed to respond to the President.
I think this meeting made a lot of sense, and I commend President Bush for going with grace to meet with his political opponents. It should have happened in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006. It may be too late for the war, but at least we can hopefully make some headway on other matters of national security.