Surviving One Party Government
Posted on December 3, 2008
As the new Democratic President and the Democratic Congress get ready to figure out how they are going to work together for the next two years, I have a piece of advice for them: Be nervous. Be very nervous.
Despite all the expectations, running a one-party government is not as easy as it seems.
I remember vividly the euphoria that rushed over the newly ascendant GOP, as President Bush was sworn in on January 20, 2001. We had a solid majority in the House, and a slender majority in the Senate (if you count Dick Cheney’s vote). Karl Rove and Tom DeLay talked of a building a permanent Republican majority. Compassionate conservative, still largely undefined, seemed like an innocuous and harmless catch phrase. Top staff from the Hill, including super staffers like David Hobbs, Ari Fleischer, Candi Wolff and Ziad Ojacki, filled important positions in the White House.
All seemed largely harmonious and expectations were very high. But personalities have a way of spoiling the best-laid plans of Presidents and Speakers.
Almost immediately, relations began to fray between the White House and the Congress. In the House, Tom DeLay led a revolt among conservatives on Bush’s proposed education reform law. In the Senate, Jim Jeffords led a one man revolt on Bush’s tax cuts, as he changed parties in protest of rough treatment from the Bush White House, throwing control back to the Democrats.
The tragedy of September 11th brought conservatives together (not to mention Democrats and the nation at large) for a few weeks, but that was but a fleeting moment in time.
In year two of the Bush White House, he signed into law a bloated Farm bill, the despised No Child Left Behind Bill, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, and the hated campaign finance legislation. While most conservatives were willing to give the President his due when it came to the war on terror, the natives were definitely getting nervous on the domestic front.
After the elections, which went pretty well for Republicans in the face of history, the White House nudged out Trent Lott as Majority Leader and replaced him with Bill Frist, after Lott made some controversial remarks praising Strom Thurmond. As leader, Frist’s first notable act was to screw both House Republicans and the White House on a budget deal that only included only half the tax cuts that they wanted.
Conservatives again revolted on a Medicare prescription reform bill that included the longest held open vote in the history of the House (over 3 hours).
When President Bush got himself reelected, with bigger majorities in the House and the Senate, there was again talk about the permanent Republican majority. And once again, personality got in the way.
Almost immediately, in a lame duck session that followed the election, Bush clashed with conservatives like Tom DeLay (and the Vice President) on an intelligence reform bill.
DeLay did himself no favors by trying to exempt himself from a Republican Conference rule that said that indicted leaders had to stop down. He tried to make the case that he didn’t qualify because if he were to be indicted, it was all because of a political witch-hunt. DeLay was able to get the rule changed, he was indicted, he had to step down anyway, and the rule repeal was reserved.
Amid all of that drama, the President tried to pass Social Security Reform, a legislative effort that was largely ignored by the Congress, and an immigration reform bill that sparked a huge revolt on the right and the left.
So the smooth path to a permanent majority has instead become a rocky road to a dejected minority.
Here are some tips for the Obama Administration as they deal with their friends on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue:
1) Never surprise the Congress: The Bush White House loved to surprise the Congress and the press. They thought it would insure that they got their story out on their terms. But Congress hates to be surprised. It makes them look stupid to their constituents. Surprises backfire. Use selective leaks to get your story out and have the Hill press secretaries help you with that process.
2) Check your ego at the door: Yes, it is really cool that you work in the White House, and it really cool that you are getting all of this press attention. But to your Hill friends, you are still the same guy who used to play softball on the Mall. Make sure your friends on the Hill are still your friends on the Hill when you leave the White House.
3) Don’t Get Mad, Get It Done: Don’t get angry when your friends on the Hill decide not to it exactly the way you want it. Getting mad will not get the laws made, and it will make you more enemies down the line. If the Hill decides to make a few changes to your masterpiece of legislation, be reasonable. They write the laws.
4) Come to the Hill as often as you can: It is easier for White House officials to come to the Hill than for Hill staff to get to the White House. Frankly, it is a pain in the ass to get in the White House, and it costs staff money to take a cab. So, try to set up meetings on the Hill if you can.
5) Listen, learn and coordinate with the Hill Press Secretaries. Jim Manley of Harry Reid’s office and Brendan Daley of Nancy Pelosi’s office are talented, smart and used to running the show. They suddenly have a lot less to do than they did just about a month ago. Keep them in the loop, take their advice and use them to get stories out. Smart members of the White House Press Corps will be calling them when they can’t get anything out of you. Make sure they have something to say that will be helpful to you and helpful to them.
6) Invite as many staff as possible to the Christmas Party. Spread a wide net. The Christmas parties, the summer picnics, the St. Patrick’s Day event, the Cinco de Mayo event, all of these are prime opportunities to either make friends happy or make new friends. Bend over backwards to get as many people there as possible.
None of these tactics will change the minds of people who disagree on strategy or tactics or philosophy. But they will help soften the edges a bit. And sometimes getting rid of the hard edges is enough to make the conflicting agendas of the Hill and the White House fit nicely together.