January 26, 2007 --
Clinton changed when the Republicans took over Congress in 1994 ... and we’ll see something similar happen with Bush and his administration before our very eyes.
The right wing won’t like it, but Bush must feel that now that the Republican base has failed to produce a GOP dominated Congress, he must wander to the center in search of higher approval ratings.
Why does Bush care? He can’t, since he’s finished all his runs for re-election. He cares because no president can govern effectively with a 30 percent approval rating. He becomes a target for any stray pot shot from any member of Congress, former foe, or former friend.
Regardless of his formal powers as commander in chief, he will find his wings clipped soon enough by a rebellious Congress, unless he can rally more than one-third of the nation to his cause. To stay in Iraq and to have any hope of victory —and to survive for the remaining two years of his presidency — Bush must bring up his ratings. If it takes moving to the center to do it, a la Clinton, that’s just what he will do.
Bush signaled his new intention right after losing Congress and when he fired Rumsfeld and brought in a centrist, Gates, to take his place as Defense Secretary. He then took the next step by retreating over the issue of NSA wiretaps. Unfortunately, he decided that it was OK to go to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) to get a warrant after all. (He’s making a big mistake on that one for which we will may all pay in future terrorist attacks.)
Then, in his State of the Union speech, he signaled a further move to the center. He spoke about the importance of countering global "climate change" after six years of saying that it was due to natural causes and that we couldn’t do a thing about it. He backed an increase in the "CAFE" motor vehicle fuel economy standards. He came out for expansion of health insurance through subsidies and tax breaks. He renewed his call for immigration reform and didn’t mention the border fence. He spoke of Social Security reform and failed to rule out an increase in taxes (most likely a rise in the ceiling on which taxes apply.)
The right will not like this new drift to the center any more than the left liked it when Bill Clinton did it in 1995-1996. And Bush will deny that anything of the sort is happening, just as Clinton did when he was in office.
But Bush realizes that the right wing base has proven faulty and that he can no longer rely on it for a majority of public opinion, any more than he could for a Congressional majority. So he is moving to a new home in the political middle.
But don’t expect any retreat on the core areas in which Bush remains personally deeply invested. His focus on victory in Iraq is as sharp as ever and his commitment to fighting terror abroad and promoting pro-life values at home will remain in tact. But on a host of other issues, the Bush of the past will be a fading memory as he seeks a new home in the political middle.
Ironically, when presidents are forced by necessity to reach out to the other side, a lot of progress is possible. Perhaps even more than when one-party control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue enforces an orthodoxy on the president and his Congress. Just as Clinton passed the minimum wage, portable health care benefits, the balanced budget, welfare reform, and a host of other bills in June and July of 1996, expect Bush to have some successes as he moves to the center in the upcoming months.