Team Bush, if nothing else, quickly became the most tightly managed White House operation in recent memory. Internal dissent in the Carter and Reagan administrations regularly appeared in newspaper headlines, with warring leaks captivating Washington insiders. Those leaks, and the scuttlebutt they produced, undermined the Carter administration (even before it got started) and weakened the Reagan juggernaut.
Some of those battles spilled over into the first Bush administration. Bush 43 watched some of the disputes firsthand and helped resolve some of them as his father’s enforcer. His own resolve was that his administration would not suffer a plague of leaks and disloyalty. Some of his team members were champion “leakers” in the old days, but Bush clearly communicated an unmistakable message. They were part of his team. Once the president made a decision, he expected them to follow loyally, without public brawls or private backstabbing.
The administration did indeed show remarkable cohesion on even the most difficult issues. During the summer of 2002, the public debate among his aides about what to do about Iraq—and how to do it—threatened to unravel the administration’s loyalty and discipline. But the vigorous struggle, with stories planted in the newspapers by opposing camps, stopped immediately when Bush announced his policy before the United Nations. The remarkable fact was the dog that didn’t bark. Unlike most big decisions in previous administrations, there was none of the second-guessing, media tales of internal struggle and controversy, or deep background stories of continued debate. The internal debates occurred. The president decided. And his team fell in line.
The administration was not able to exact the same loyalty from those outside the inner circle. That was especially the case with Republican members of Congress, who enjoyed their own political base and didn’t always see eye-to-eye with the president’s strategy. The loss of Senator Jeffords from the Republican party showed how difficult managing these outside players could be—and the large risk that missteps could cause. The challenge of building loyalty among members of this larger team grew exponentially the further out the team was from Bush’s inner circle. Similarly, the president’s tools for leveraging the team diminished. Those problems sometimes frustrated Bush.
In dealing with these problems, Bush 41’s style had been very different from Bush 43’s. Bush senior had served in both the House and Senate, and as president, he paid a great deal of attention to members of Congress. He’d spent years building relationships he would later rely on as president. He often made phone calls from the Oval Office to touch base with key members. He exercised in the House gym and often invited old pals to Camp David. And when his aides threatened to use hardball tactics to round up key votes, Bush 41 instructed his staff to back off.
In contrast, Bush 43 had no Capitol Hill experience and didn’t have personal relationships with members of Congress when he came to Washington. When Jeffords opposed the president’s tax cut plan, Bush did not call him to try to change his mind. He allowed his staff free rein in playing hardball behind the scenes. Some observers did not find that surprising—after all, Bush himself had sometimes played the role of enforcer in Bush 41’s administration.
Team Bush learned a critical lesson too late. To win, it’s important to win votes in Congress. That requires maintaining a solid and committed base of true believers. It requires being attentive to moderate swing votes (like Jeffords) and massaging them with the vast resources of perks and power at the White House’s disposal. It was a mistake that Team Bush did not make twice. In fact, Bush took a huge gamble in investing his personal prestige in helping Republican candidates in the 2002 midterm congressional campaign. The gamble paid off richly. Team Bush then worked to parlay that into legislative success—and a jump-start for the 2004 presidential campaign.