Principle over Politics? The Domestic Policy of the George H. W. Bush Presidency

By Richard Himelfarb; Rosanna Perotti | Go to book overview

Discussant: Richard M. Pious

I’d like to talk about President Bush in a slightly different perspective. What I think the budget crisis, the “Read my lips” fiasco, and the ultimate Budget One that didn’t pass and Budget Two that did pass reveal about the Bush presidency has simply heightened and magnified what these kinds of issues reveal about all modern presidencies. There are a series of things that are problematic in the modern presidency, and when you get a failure, then you see them almost in bold relief.

The first thing to look at is the problem of the institutionalized presidency: the counsels, and councils, and staffers, and offices that go on ad nauseum and ad infinitum. The problem for Bush was that he relied on his staffers, that he relied on these people, and he relied on them too much. Richard Neustadt, who wrote the classic book about presidential power, said, “There’s no substitute for a president getting personally involved, personally immersed, in the details.” I think that’s a problem, and it’s a problem in this budget crisis—understandably, perhaps, because at various points after August Bush is preoccupied with the Persian Gulf War—not the war but the Persian Gulf crisis, putting together the coalition, etc. But it seems to me he relies much too much on Darman and Sununu—to a lesser extent on Brady, although Brady is there—and by kind of, you might say, delegating to them the brief of “Put something together, work it out, let’s get a deal,” and I think their sense that they could do that, you are putting your eggs in the wrong basket; you’re putting your money on the wrong horse. Particularly because, with Darman and Sununu, I think you’re dealing with people who, number one, are high-maintenance people, not low-maintenance people, and number two, people who cause more problems than they solve. So you’ve got people who are creating problems, not solving them. Ultimately, the two of them—plus, I think, Brady, unfortunately, gets lumped in this group, so you get the three of them—are referred to by congressional Republicans as “the Three Stooges.” That’s what they’re calling them! And eventually, you get people like Cheney and Quayle and Kemp having to be brought in, you might say, like when the first team messes up in the second quarter, and you have to bench some guys and bring in somebody else just to play for a while while everybody regroups.

They’re not the only ones who have messed up in the institutional presidency. Having a chief of staff who creates more problems than he solves is a tradition ever since we’ve had chiefs of staff. But that’s one of the kinds of issues.

I think freezing out much of the congressional liaison people and the other groups when decision making was made was a problem. You have to fault Bush for this: It’s his administration, it’s his White House office, it’s his executive office of the presidency. He’s supposed to know how to handle this kind of thing. If he’s going to have a complex organization, if he’s going to rely on it, he should do a good job with it. I think most people that I’ve read, at least, or that I’ve talked to

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