Job One was dealing with Congress. Without a working relationship with legislators on Capitol Hill, Bush would be a lame duck before he had a chance to start. Republicans were anxious to move their long-stalled agenda—and to restore the heady days of the Reagan presidency. Democrats were wary of the new administration’s agenda items. With such narrow party splits—a nine-vote edge for Republicans in the House and a dead-even split in the Senate—there was no margin for error, on anyone’s part.
Bush’s initial strategy for dealing with Congress was the same one he had successfully used in Texas. One reporter called him “a world-class schmoozer” who built legislative success on personal relationships. His personal ties were legendary, and even Democrats admitted liking him—to the point that one Democratic legislative leader appeared on a 2000 campaign commercial to tout Bush’s ability to work across party lines in the legislature. William Allaway, a veteran lobbyist, said, “He’s the only governor I’ve ever known that I would like to have sitting on my back porch drinking beer and talking baseball.”
Congressional Democrats were struck by the personal touch, and they greatly appreciated it. It was better than the right-wing hammer they had expected. They had also demanded that Bush back away from his more aggressive campaign proposals, especially for a big tax cut. They didn’t get their wish. But the respect and personal attention that Bush showed gave them some hope in working out a bipartisan compromise for governing.
The strategy, however, soon ran headlong into serious trouble—not from Democrats, but from a member of Bush’s own party in the Senate. In May 2001 the White House was stunned to learn that Vermont senator Jim Jeffords, a longtime Republican, was preparing to bolt the party and declare himself an independent. The defection would give the Democrats control of the Senate and pose huge problems for Bush and his agenda. Bush and his aides launched a full-force offensive to try to keep Jeffords in the Republican fold, but it failed. Back in Montpelier, the capital of his home state, Jeffords sadly said that the party once stood for “moderation, tolerance, fiscal responsibility.” With Bush’s election, he no longer believed that was true. Increasingly, he said, it had become “a struggle for our leaders to deal with me and for me to deal with them.”
The White House was stunned by the announcement. By the time they launched their full court press to keep Jeffords, it was too late. Administration officials knew that Jeffords was unhappy, especially over earlier scraps about the first version of the Bush tax cut plan. But they had no idea that relations had soured to the point that he would bolt the party.
For Jeffords, the problems had been building to the boiling point. There were some small slights that loom large in capital politics—the White House had denied coveted tour passes to Jeffords’s constituents, and Jeffords had not been invited to an event the month before recognizing the Vermont teacher of the year. There were also important policy differences. Jeffords had long campaigned for increased funding for special-needs students, and Republicans in the Senate opposed his plan. The grievances gradually built up until Jeffords decided to quit the party.
While Bush aides, both publicly and privately, said that the defection was not a serious issue, it sent up red flags across the capital. Old-time Republican insiders were shocked that the administration did not have better intelligence about Congress, especially about a member of their own party. Some observers also wondered whether the defection revealed fundamental flaws in Bush’s legislative strategy. Bush was indeed warm and charming with members of Congress, but critics warned that he had done little to build one-on-one relationships that could be counted upon in the crunch.
Behind the scenes, top aides, especially Karl Rove, played a ruthless game. He questioned Jeffords’s motives, which enraged the senator, and some insiders speculated that Rove was conducting a revenge campaign against him. The combination—a president too breezy in person and a staff too heavy-handed in private—was a sign of serious trouble, especially to some Republicans. One congressional analyst said, “It was less political hardball and more juvenile T-ball.”
As the team gained more experience in Washington’s folkways, it became more practiced in holding the Republican base and massaging the party’s moderates. That approach, in fact, proved pivotal in winning close legislative victories in 2002 and built up to the Republicans’ congressional wins in the midterm elections.
The Jeffords story taught Team Bush an important lesson. As the administration was scurrying to build support among key congressional swing voters for the tax reform plan, aides neglected to nurture their Republican base. In the process, they lost control of the Senate and could have lost the tax bill. Without a strong foundation, ambitious goals can collapse. The lesson: Don’t become overextended by neglecting the base while trying to broaden support.