Bush is audacious, but should that be surprising?

  Indulge a small fantasy: It is 1993, and Bill Clinton, about to become the first Democratic president in 12 years, meets with the men who control his party’s majorities in Congress.

"Mr. President," say Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and House Speaker Tom Foley, "you are our leader. You make the final decisions. We have a united, disciplined party. So when you say, ‘Jump,’ our only question will be ‘How high?’ "

A most unlikely fantasy. The Democrats were not a united, disciplined party. But had they been focused on policy instead of their fiefdoms, we would now have some kind of national health insurance system, modest but substantial increases in social programs, a higher minimum wage, stronger anti-pollution laws, and, in the West, more preservation of, and less resource extraction from, the public land.

That’s what people who seek power do when they get power. They use it. The Republicans are a united and disciplined party. They have power, and so they are doing whatever they can, which is almost (though not quite) whatever they please. Whoever is thereby shocked demonstrates nothing but naiveté.

That naiveté is on display wherever Democrats and liberals gather or express themselves, and it diverts attention from the historic singularity of the present situation: Never before have conservative Republicans effectively controlled the federal government.

Conservative Republicanism as we know it is only some 60 years old. It was a reaction against the New Deal, and remains in large part an effort to reverse it. From the birth of conservative Republicanism until 2001, only during Dwight Eisenhower’s first two years did a Republican president have a Republican Congress. But Ike was a moderate who took more guff from his party’s conservatives than from the Democrats.

Richard Nixon was a moderate, too, and Democrats ruled Congress while he was president. Ronald Reagan and a Republican Senate were elected in 1980, but the House remained under Democratic control. There were enough conservative Democrats for Reagan to get much of his program through. But without control of the House, Republicans could not thoroughly rewrite legislation in House-Senate Conference Committees, as they do in this Congress.

In 1986, Republicans lost their Senate majority, and did not recover it until the anti-Clinton landslide of 1994, when the GOP took control of both houses. But until 2001, a Democratic president contained them.

Now, on all levels, Bush and the Republicans are working to extend their power. Bush is appointing very conservative federal judges with lifetime tenure. The congressional leadership regularly alters — or ignores — its rules to pass administration proposals. Republican officials in Washington pressure state legislators to redraw congressional district lines to enhance the GOP’s House majority. With neither restraint nor shame, the White House and its congressional followers press every advantage to the extreme in an effort to control all three branches of government far into the future.

No party has exercised comparable control since 1965-66, when Lyndon Johnson and huge Democratic majorities (295 to 140 in the House) produced Medicare, Medicaid, and the War on Poverty.

At the time, Republicans argued that the president and his allies were riding roughshod over the minority party’s rights. Those Republicans had a point. But that’s how people with power behave. Then and now, the people out of power complain that the rules are being broken. They are, but what else is new?

Western environmentalists angry about the Bush administration weakening wilderness protection by administrative order applauded when the Clinton administration attempted the de facto creation of new wilderness areas — via the Roadless Rule — through executive order. Only losers bellyache about process.

Besides, it isn’t as though Bush isn’t doing what he said he would. It isn’t his fault that many observers thought "compassionate conservatism" meant "moderate conservatism." Bush said he would cut taxes, open up more public land to drilling and logging, scrap the anti-ballistic missile treaty, and appoint judges like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Yes, he also said he’d consider carbon monoxide a pollutant and eschew nation-building. But Clinton said he’d push for a middle-class tax cut.

Nor is it Bush’s fault that the Democrats turned into a confused, frightened blob of mush until Howard Dean broke the spell. People who don’t like Bush’s policies can hope that the recent revival of Democratic spunk survives at least until Election Day. They can go to court if they think that the administration exceeds its authority so egregiously that it is breaking the law. But there is no point in complaining that this administration flexes its political muscle. That’s what it is supposed to do.

Jon Margolis is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He covers the Washington power trip from Vermont.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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