Machiavelli in Washington DC ; Four Months in Power and George W Bush Shows a Devilish Talent for Mustering Support from the Least Likely Sources

Article excerpt

George W Bush can be accused of many things: of breaking his post- election promise of cross-party co-operation, of gross inadequacy in the oratorical department, of insensitivity towards the big wide non- American world and - at the end of a week in which he presented an industry-friendly energy plan - of being in bed with his oil buddies. But in one area he must be given his due.

In just four months in Washington, Mr Bush has proved himself one of the canniest operators in the American political business. His predecessor, Bill Clinton, was a consummate wheeler-dealer, a master of brinkmanship who knew how to trade favours for congressional votes, while continually calculating the political odds. But George W Bush is a veritable Machiavelli.

A version of his tactics was seen back in Texas, when as governor- elect he courted the then chairman of the state legislature, a Democrat by the name of Bob Bullock. His alliance with Mr Bullock and their subsequent friendship gave him a handle on the Texas legislature and the chance to get something done.

Since arriving at the White House, Mr Bush has adapted that early alliance- building technique to the realities of Washington. While Bill Clinton tried to govern from what he divined to be the political centre, abandoning the left of the Democratic Party when necessary to bring a greater number of moderate Republicans on board, George Bush - perhaps of necessity - has chosen a different and more intricate route.

Rather than relying on a single, albeit shifting, alliance, he has built different alliances to suit the issue at hand. This past week, as the White House prepared for the release of his energy plan, Vice-President Dick Cheney entertained some unlikely guests: the leaders of the country's main trade unions. Unions are pitifully weak in the United States, but such strength as they have is concentrated in heavy industry. What Mr Cheney wanted was support for his, and Mr Bush's, energy strategy, and he won it by stressing the number of jobs (including unionised jobs) that would be created if more power stations were built and oil wells sunk.

With union support, Mr Bush has a stick to brandish at those Democrats whose main campaign funding comes from organised labour. With the campaign for the 2002 congressional elections not so far away, these Democrats need to keep their backers sweet. If, as is possible, Republicans from environmentally minded states balk at measures such as drilling for oil in conservation areas, the votes of these union-backed Democrats could tip the majority in the President's favour.

Mr Bush has employed similar sleight of hand to advance two measures he has initiated, his flagship tax-cutting proposals and his education bill; and delay one he fiercely opposes, the reform of the campaign financing system, sponsored by his erstwhile Republican rival, Senator John McCain. That bill is now stalled in the House of Representatives, the very chamber that has approved two campaign finance reform bills in the past only to see them die in the Senate.

In a move of devilish genius, Mr Bush has mustered a coalition of high- spending Republicans and frugal, mainly black, Democrats who share an interest in thwarting the reform. The Republicans are congenitally opposed to anything that would clip their fund-raising wings; while the Democrats have been persuaded that reform could limit, or halt, the transfer of funds from richer party organisations to their own impoverished campaigns. After passing the Senate, the bill is now stalled in the House, the very chamber where its chances had seemed assured. …