Can Bush Now Fulfill His 'Uniter' Pledge?

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U.S. President George W. Bush i

U.S. President George W. Bush waves while boarding Marine One for a weekend retreat to Camp David, Jan. 20, 2007 Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. President George W. Bush

U.S. President George W. Bush waves while boarding Marine One for a weekend retreat to Camp David, Jan. 20, 2007

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The Series

Ask President Bush how he can work with a newly Democratic Congress and he has a ready answer.

"I was the governor of Texas with Democrat leadership in the House and the Senate, and we were able to get a lot of constructive things done for the state of Texas," the president has said. "And I believe it's going to be possible here — to do so here in the country."

Gov. Bush did have close relationships with Democrats. In fact, on the night he officially became President-elect, it was the Democratic speaker of the Texas House, Pete Laney, who introduced him at the statehouse with warm words.

Today, Laney is retired and living back in his old district near the Texas panhandle. He recalls how he and Gov. Bush often found common ground on issues ranging from education, to juvenile justice, to tort reform.

"He would not be bashful about going down to members' offices and meeting with members in their office, be that Democrat or Republican," Laney says.

In Bush's acceptance speech at the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia, he made it a point to mention another Democrat: Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, who had died the previous year.

"Bob was a Democrat, a crusty veteran of Texas politics, and my great friend," Bush had said.

Journalist Ken Herman covered Gov. Bush as a reporter for the Austin-American Statesman newspaper. He says the governor put on a charm offensive aimed at winning Bullock over.

"And it worked," Herman says. "Bullock thought the world of Bush. Bullock was among the first to say 'This boy ought to be president someday.' And he was a Dem who endorsed Gov. Bush for re-election in 1998 over a Democratic candidate whose children were Bob Bullock's godchildren. So this was a big deal."

But Herman, who now covers the White House for Cox newspapers, also notes that Republican Gov. Bush had few differences with the conservative Democrats who ran Austin at the time. Nor was there that much responsibility resting on the governor. In Texas, the office is relatively weak.

"There's an old joke about the governor of Texas and his three constitutional duties," says former speaker Laney. "One of them is to make appointments which the Senate can bust; veto legislation with the Legislature can override; and call special sessions and we don't have to show up. So it was very imperative that the governor work with the legislative process."

Gov. Bush did just that, creating a narrative of success for his run for the White House. His campaign ads in 2000 focused on his ability to be a "uniter, not a divider."

In his earliest White House days, President Bush showed signs of charming key Democrats as he had in Texas. He wooed Sen. Edward Kennedy, at one point, inviting him into the Oval Office to show him the desk he was using — the same one used by the senator's brother, John.

"I noticed people referring to this as the 'Hug a Democrat a Day' administration," said Press Secretary Ari Fleischer in February 2001, when a large number of Democrats were visiting the White House for meetings and social events. "I think if you recall, I reminded people the president also has friends who aren't Democrats."

It was a nice mood, but it didn't last.

In 2001, the White House won over enough Democrats to push new public-education standards through Congress, as well as huge tax cuts.

After Sept. 11, 2001, the whole Congress united behind the president. But in 2002, White House campaigned aggressively against targeted democrats, suggesting that some didn't care about fighting terrorism.

In 2003, as the war in Iraq dragged on and no weapons of mass destruction were found, the relationship deteriorated further.

Soon, even Democrats who had been friendly were calling the education programs flawed and the tax cuts too generous to the rich. And as Iraq grew more chaotic, Democrats turned on the administration in fury. By late 2006, the two parties were as far apart as ever. Polls showed that the public viewed President Bush as a divider, not a uniter.

Mr. Bush says he can work with Democrats as he has in the past, but he's a long way from Texas.

Crossing the Divide: An NPR Series

President George Bush shakes hands with new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California

President George Bush shakes hands with new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, Nov. 9, 2006. Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

The elections of November 2006 brought Democrats to majorities in Congress, forcing President Bush to share power in Washington and pay attention to his opposition in ways he did not in the first six years of his presidency

The president immediately pledged to be as bipartisan as possible.

The new majorities also changed life on Capitol Hill, where the floor bosses of the two parties in both chambers have swapped roles, and where all the committees are suddenly under new management. In many cases, especially in the House, the agendas of the new chairmen are almost 180 degrees different from those of their Republican predecessors.

The Democrats immediately pledged to be as bipartisan as possible.

Of course, the Democrats in the House immediately passed a flurry of their own preferred bills while allowing no Republican amendments. And President Bush just as immediately announced a new build-up of troops in Iraq that he knew would be opposed by the vast majority of Democrats in Congress.

So what is bipartisanship? Majorities always give it lip service because they know they should, and because they know they need some of it to succeed. Minorities always ask for it because it's their only access to a share of power.

In one sense, true or pure bipartisanship is impossible in a political system almost entirely organized around partisanship — the rivalry of major parties. It is akin to asking for agreement between two sets of lawyers hired to be adversaries. Arguing is what they do, and they are paid to insist on their viewpoint.

But in another sense, the American political system is about satisfying the majority without making life too onerous for the minority. We expect all sides in any controversy to state their principles and serve their interests, but we also ask them to respect the need for resolution in the end. The more important the issue, the more important it is to reach that resolution.

Everyone who enters the public arena soon learns that the struggle is not the end product. The struggle is a means. In the end, all parties have to find some means of give and take. They have to cross the space that divides them.

This takes place in a variety of ways. We are familiar with the process because it is so familiar. Nothing is more characteristic of our daily lives than conflict with other human beings. This goes for interaction between individuals and also for the friction between groups, large or small.

But overcoming conflict is also basic. It is fundamental to civilization and social evolution. It enables our lives to be something more than a daily struggle to survive.

Dealing with conflict at all levels — from the most primitive to the most sophisticated — is a common experience. Sometimes we resolve conflict with a show of will or the use of force. But most of the time, we find a way of weighing the values and making some kind of deal.

Life in a democracy requires debating issues and taking votes. But it also requires a willingness to commit to something else: an investment in give and take. In a democracy, no one can expect to call all the shots all the time — and no one should want to. Understanding contrary positions is both a talent and a learned skill. The best leaders value their principles and pursue them, but always with the knowledge that at some point, you have to make the deal. You have to open your eyes and ears to the other side. You have to cross the divide.

Over the course of the next week, NPR News will present a special series of reports across all of its news programs. Crossing the Divide will explore the pros and cons of bipartisanship in Washington, and feature examples of compromise and cooperation from politics, business and everyday life in America. With the 2008 presidential election looming, a small window of opportunity exists for the White House and Congress to find common ground and accomplish some goals for the American people. But what's the best way to do it?

Was there a time when Americans got along better, or did we get that idea from watching old movies? Is there still a spirit of national inspiration that is shared by our public servants, regardless of party or ideology? Do our national symbols help bring us together?

We will hear from some of our most experienced correspondents and some of our newest. We will hear about how things are changing in Washington and in state capitals. We also will hear from Americans who have found their own ways around conflicts and difference.



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