No Panaceas

Thursday, April 17, 2003
More on Frist: Yesterday I talked a bit about Frist's rough time as majority leader. With today's Post we have the first "he's having big problems" article. Note these comments from Lindsay Graham:

"The way to lose everyone over time is have people feel you are not dealing straight up," said Graham, a former House member. "We've done some significant things . . . [but] all that can come to an end if people feel that trust doesn't exist." While Frist maintains strong support among Senate Republicans, Graham pointedly warned, "This can either be a bump in the road or a turn in the wrong direction."

That's a fairly pointed comment so early in Frist's tenure. (See Santorum's, too.) Basically, being majority leader sucks and I think Frist was foolish to take on the job if he really wants to be president. Even if he recovers and does a terrific job he'll still get blamed for stuff that he had no control over. In contrast to the House Speaker the majority leader has virtually no power. He's a coordinator, a herder of cats, the administrating potentate among potentates. It's a pretty hard job to learn on the fly but, obviously, he will have to learn fast or else someone like Nickles or Santorum will push him out. much as they may hate it, people like Nickles and Delay need to break out their abaci. In contrast to the House, the key swing voters in the Senate are the moderates -- Snowe, Collins, Chaffee, Breaux, Miller, etc. They are the ones who have to be catered to, not the senate conservatives. Frist seems to understand this better than some.

Wednesday, April 16, 2003
Budget follies: Like a lot of people I'm completely confused about what's going on with the budget deal in the Senate. Now it appears that the second parliamentarian in two years is about to get fired. (Both over quite similar issues.) Once again we get a nice lesson as to why procedure matters. Also, as is clear from some recent reports (a subscription service), Bill Frist is having a rocky start as majority leader. (He's not the first.) A CQ piece by Allison Stevens suggests that Frist might mend fences with House leaders by not letting Grassley lead the Senate delegation to the conference committee. I know that Grassley's public persona is rather mild-mannered, while House majority leader Tom Delay's is that of a pit bull. But Frist needs Grassley a hell of a lot of more than he needs DeLay, and I think that Grassley won't hesitate to let Frist know it.

Use it before losing it: Now that the war is won the White House is turning its attention to domestic issues. The bottom line for Bush is that right now he needs to determine the two or three things he most wants to get from Congress and then go for it. Right now. Right now is his best chance for legislative success, perhaps even if he wins re-election. Right now he has two key advantages. First, Republicans enjoy majorities in the House and the Senate. Second, his public approval ratings are quite high. Bush can not assume that the Republicans will keep control of Congress, even if he retakes the White House in 2004. Furthermore, history suggests that he is unlikely to ever reach this level of approval again. Plus, as I've argued before, this rally effect will be short.

In the House Bush can pass anything he wants. There the Republicans have a reasonably large and cohesive majority with strong leadership. Obviously the filibuster and other obstructive devices usually makes the Senate harder to handle. Plus, in the current Senate even when the filibuster is not in play the Republican majority is constrained by the presence of several moderates, such as the two senators from Maine and Lincoln Chaffee (R-RI).

High approval levels won't help Bush sway liberal votes. Nor does he need high approval levels to sway conservative votes, he has those already. Where approval proves effective is in lobbying cross-pressured senators like Chaffee and John Breaux (D-LA). (Chaffee needs Republican support to get re-nominated while Breaux represents a quite conservative state.) For example, one way to do this is to travel to the states of this type senator and use his popularity to stir up public pressure on the senator. (Another thing approval can help Bush do is raise money, both for himself and for favored legislators; the definition of "favored" is something too that can be applied strategically: "Lincoln, my boy, let's have a shindig up in Providence. I'll help you raise a couple of million. About that tax cut...")

The most crucial question for Bush at this point concerns his agenda. What are the two or three items he wants? Broadly speaking he has two choices: He can use all of his resources to ram through something that purely serves a conservative agenda -- such as the full amount of his tax cut -- or he can go for a series of proposals likely to appeal to a broader swath of senators, like a prescription drug plan. Right now Bush is guaranteed a $350 billion tax cut. That is the amount the Senate has endorsed. (The House, of course, is willing to accept far more.) Bush has now backed down on his original request for $726 billion, in favor of a $550 billion cut. If he really goes for it I think he can get something close to the $550 billion. But doing so means running roughshod over senators like Finance chair Charles Grassley (R-IA), exactly the type of senator Bush needs to keep happy, if he plans on doing much in the future. Frankly, if it was me I'd take the $350 billion and then go after some legislation that might actually help me in 2004, such as prescription drug reform.

"The fact is, there's little a human legislator does that a machine can't handle...": The Onion strikes again.

Monday, April 14, 2003
Blair's moment on the brink: Here is an interesting article in today's Guardian regarding Blair. It reveals that Blair planned to resign if he lost the March 18th vote. This is no surprise. Given the nature of parliamentary politics there is no way he could continue in the face of such a fundamental rejection. The article has some interesting points on Labour politics. Note the following: "If Blair was to have been ousted, two things would have had to happen. First, Blair would have had to stumble; second, a plausible alternative prime minister would have had to step up at the right time. Neither happened, though both almost did." As the article goes on to note, Robin Cook opted to not to take on the challenge, and Gordon Brown decided to keep his powder dry and support Blair. Brown is Chancellor of the Exchequer -- which is somewhat like a combination of Treasury, OMB, and the CEA -- and is easily Blair's most potent rival.

The left lost its love of Blair long ago. But like Democratic liberals and Clinton, the Labour left really does not have anywhere to go. Yet, I have to think that one day Blair will pay a price when the day comes that he desperately needs the left's support.