One of the (many) reasons George W. Bush infuriates Democrats: He's a great party leader.
Last week's inaugural events at the Capitol and in the capital were designed to portray the president as a national leader. Presidents since Thomas Jefferson have used their inaugural moment to place the ceremony above party, and to place themselves above party. The president accomplished that.
But he did one thing more. In the parties and pomp that accompanied Inauguration Day, he also set out to reinforce his role as a party leader.
Not all presidents succeed at that. Richard Nixon, uncomfortable with the very party leaders who three times nominated him for president, was peculiarly ineffective as a party leader, and that's not even counting his effect on party fortunes after his resignation in disgrace in 1974. (The Republicans lost 48 seats in the House, and the Democrats of the Class of 1974 were a force on Capitol Hill for a generation.) Jimmy Carter was no party leader, either; to a remarkable degree, Carter ran the country and House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. ran the party in those years. It was not a model to be admired, or imitated.
But Bush sees himself not only as a war president but also as a party leader. His guru, Karl Rove, has no small ambition; he wants to establish the Republicans as the natural party of government. The president knows firsthand the value of governing with a Congress controlled by his own party -- an advantage Carter possessed but never seemed to exploit, and one that Bill Clinton so abused that he lost it two years into his presidency.
Not so Bush. He is the first president since Franklin D. Roosevelt -- the party-builder par excellence -- to increase his majorities in both houses of Congress while winning re-election. And he is the first Republican since Abraham Lincoln -- who helped put the country back together as he built the Republican Party -- to make that achievement. Unlike his predecessor, he doesn't look at the word "legacy" through a first-person-singular prism.
Harold F. Bass, a well-regarded political scientist at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark., has studied presidential party leadership -- there's no specialty too small in academics or medicine -- and he concludes that Bush is emerging as one of history's leading party-builders.
The president, he writes in the Berkeley, Calif.-based online journal The Forum, "stands poised to reach rarefied heights of repute as a presidential party leader, rivaling Franklin Roosevelt."
Support in Congress
One of the measures of party-building is party support in Congress, and here Bush scores remarkably well, receiving support from fellow Republicans in his first term at a 92 percent rate in the Senate and at an 84 percent rate in the House, according to figures assembled by Congressional Quarterly, a nonpartisan journal. No president has scored higher.
But winning votes on the Hill is only part of the task of building a party. Building support among party members is potentially more important -- and more enduring.
The first task of a presidential party leader is to care about the party. A remarkable number of presidents don't. Dwight D. Eisenhower was barely a Republican, and it showed. Nixon cared more about his own fortunes than his party's, and it is telling that he attributed his resignation not to his deeds but to the collapse of his political support. Carter infuriated Democratic leaders, who felt out of place and sometimes downright unwelcome in their own party and in the White House they fought so hard to reclaim after eight years of Nixon and Gerald R. Ford. Reagan angered GOP officials in the last days of the 1984 contest by gratuitously campaigning in Minnesota, the only state he would lose that year, in the vain hope of achieving an electoral clean sweep. They would have much preferred him to tend to Republican lawmakers in trouble elsewhere.
Party leaders watch what presidents do when they swoop into town for a Jefferson-Jackson Day or Lincoln Day dinner, traditionally the biggest fund-raising event for state and local parties. "The party-building presidents leave the money there," says Paul G. Kirk, the former Democratic Party chairman, "and don't bring it back with them to Washington."
Don't divide your own party
There is one more thing, important in every administration, critical in this one. Presidential party leaders don't divide their own parties.
That is why the domestic policy of President Bush is so critical. The administration's Social Security initiative that emerges from the debate in Washington has the potential of forcing Republicans to make a difficult choice some of them prefer to avoid, particularly if it permits a large share of Social Security taxes to be invested privately. (One proposal being kicked around in Republican circles would permit almost all of the taxes to be placed in private accounts.) The continuing federal deficit could force some budget hawks into an equally uncomfortable position. There remain many Republicans who deplore a deficit, even if so many of them (the Wall Street faction, for example) live in places that, in the argot of the time, are regarded as congenitally Blue States -- like New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Bass, the expert on presidential party-builders, says the Republican Party is dangerously vulnerable to instability in the Bush years, with tensions potentially pitting economic conservatives against social conservatives.
"The former embrace limited government, while the latter view government as the positive means to achieve their objectives," he writes. "Policy decisions and political appointments in the second term may well exacerbate intra-party tensions, especially as the 2008 presidential elections loom."
That's a Republican danger. But there's another way to evaluate Bush's record as a party builder. Ask the Democrats. Many of them believe the president is doing distressingly well.
-- David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.