To make matters worse, Bush had only a narrow Republican majority in the House of Representatives. The Senate was divided 50-50, with Vice President Cheney, presiding officer in the Senate, permitted to break ties. A pall hung over Bush’s claim to power, and he couldn’t count on much help from Republicans on Capitol Hill. Cannon wondered whether, with “half the voters thinking the president does not belong there, [if] anything can be done.” At most, Rep. Mark E. Souder (R., Ind.) suggested, it was likely to be “a presidency of small advances rather than broad, sweeping changes.” Democrats set to work to undermine the Bush agenda by reminding analysts about his weak claim to power. Only strong and quick steps toward conciliation—especially moderation in his game plan—would help him succeed, they proclaimed.
But Team Bush rejected that counsel. Chief of Staff Card prepared background memos on every transition since 1960, drawing lessons, small and large, to guide the Bush transition. To demonstrate that they were organized and in command, Card insisted that aides return phone calls quickly. To build important relationships, he wrote thank-you notes to the people he met with, and members of Congress were flattered that he took time to make the personal connection.
Bush was determined to avoid the civil wars that marked some transitions. Jimmy Carter, for example, found his campaign and transition staffs in open conflict. Those battles disrupted his transition, and his White House staff never fully recovered. In the first week after taking office, Bill Clinton drove his approval ratings into the basement by announcing support for gay people joining the military. The issue had not been fully staffed out, and he walked into a buzz saw. His problems worsened as several appointees, including his attorney general nominee, ran into trouble.
On the other end of the spectrum, Bush learned from the relatively smooth Reagan transition, in which the president kept staff struggles under control and far from the public eye. The first steps a new president takes create images, both with Washington insiders and with the people, about how firm his grip is on the levers of power. Missteps create lasting problems from which recovery is slow, painful, and almost always incomplete.
With so little time to organize and such a great chance for initial missteps to bog down a new president, it’s crucial “to strike the right starting note.” as Bush adviser Karl Rove noted. “Time is precious,” he added. So Team Bush developed a straightforward strategy to change the perception of an illegitimate presidency and start his administration out on the right note:
Acting like a winner helps make you a winner. Weeks before the election was finally settled, Bush made a victory speech but then faded from public view. His advisers told reporters that he was busy working on the transition, especially his cabinet appointments. He appeared periodically at his ranch for photo opportunities, including a notable visit by retired general Colin Powell. Andrew Card told reporters that the two discussed foreign policy issues, but the clear implication was that Powell was being considered for a key post in the new administration. Bush also met early in December with Republican congressional leaders to discuss how best to advance his legislative agenda.
Meanwhile, Karen Hughes constantly reprocessed the same basic message: Bush won the election. Gore can’t accept the outcome. The Bush team was briskly moving forward in preparing for the inevitable. Some Democrats, correctly, suggested Gore’s odds of winning the court battles were low. Their comments quickly found their way into Bush press releases. Team Bush did everything they could to suggest that the extended court battle was a mere formality that in the end would confirm their victory.
Build a team you can trust, and don’t be afraid to delegate. Early in the process, Bush delegated to Dick Cheney the job of sorting through candidates for cabinet positions. Cheney and his team interviewed leading candidates and made recommendations to Bush. By the time the Florida outcome was decided, Bush was nearly ready to announce his team. He started by making clear who was in charge of the process, and, by naming Cheney, made it impossible for disappointed candidates or warring staffers to try end runs. That ensured greater control over the process and created a workmanlike sense of direction in the transition.
Know what you want—and don’t cave in too soon. Bush was under no illusion about the tenuousness of his position. If any one of several different court decisions had gone differently, Al Gore might have become president of the United States. Democrats suggested that if Bush were serious about putting behind the bitter partisanship of the election, he would back away from his campaign promises and signal he was ready to deal.
Bush’s advisers, however, knew that would erode his Republican base before he got started. It would also signal that he could be bullied. One Bush adviser told a reporter, “Bush is a person who said what he believes. And it is important a president has credibility with Congress, so when they come to an agreement, it can be counted upon.” That, the adviser said, was “why he is not going to abandon his agenda. He’s not going to walk out and say ‘I didn’t mean it.’”
Team Bush knew that it would have to make concessions along the way. The critical question was when, and the president’s strategy was to stand firm first and compromise later, if necessary. “You lay out what your agenda is, then you see what points of agreement you can find,” one senior Bush adviser said. “Otherwise you are signaling that what you say doesn’t matter.”
That doesn’t mean that Bush is unwilling to compromise. Sadler explained that Bush followed his campaign promises with specific proposals. When legislative politics got sticky, however, Bush accepted compromises to get the bills passed. “At the end of the day, he knows what can pass and what can’t pass,” Sadler explained. “He will try to get as close to his proposal as he can, but in the end he will cut the best deal available.”
Develop working partnerships via the “olive branch” approach. Democrats in Congress were smarting over the election’s outcome and were quietly muttering that the race had been stolen. They opposed most of Bush’s campaign promises, like a big tax cut and a “Star Wars” defense system. They were in no mood to embrace a White House–Capitol Hill partnership. Bush launched a charm offensive. He met with leaders of both parties. He kept the meetings on time and he listened carefully, to signal respect. He showed patience and did not dive right into policy. He knew that charm would not change anyone’s mind on issues of policy. But in focusing on style over substance, he worked to build civility—and a basis for future negotiations.
It doesn’t matter whether you win by one vote or millions—as long as you win. Pundits spent weeks after the election suggesting that the closeness of the election would hog-tie Bush. He chose simply to ignore them. The administration moved smartly and crisply to establish its policy agenda. They acted, in fact, as if Bush has won by a landslide. That undermined suggestions of his powerlessness and implicitly dared anyone to take him on. Again, acting so helped make it so.