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REED POLITICAL SCIENCE 330 - The George W. Bush Presidency and the 2006 Elections

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article1.pdfarticle2.pdfarticle3.pdfarticle4.pdfarticle5.pdfThe ForumVolume 4, Issue 3 2006 Article 12006 MIDTERMS: POST-ELECTION APPRAISALFrustrated Ambitions: The George W. BushPresidency and the 2006 ElectionsSteven E. Schier∗∗Carleton College, [email protected]2006 The Berkeley Electronic Press. All rights reserved.Frustrated Ambitions: The George W. BushPresidency and the 2006 Elections∗Steven E. SchierAbstractThe 2006 elections dealt a strong blow to the sizeable political and policy ambitions motivat-ing the George W. Bush presidency. Bush’s attempt to entrench a conservative political regimein national politics now faces its greatest peril. In particular, Bush’s “political capital” is muchreduced by Democratic control of the House and Senate. Bush’s assertion of his formal powerswill also receive greater challenge by Congress. It is now up to future GOP presidents to achieveBush’s extensive regime ambitions.KEYWORDS: presidency, leadership, political parties∗Steven E. Schier is Dorothy H. and Edward C. Congdon Professor of Political Science at CarletonCollege in Northfield, Minnesota and director of the Carleton College Washington program. He isthe author or editor of nine books, most recently High Risk and Big Ambition: The Presidency ofGeorge W. Bush (Pittsburgh, 2004).The grand ambitions motivating the George W. Bush presidency – creating a GOP electoral majority, pursuing a more militarily assertive foreign policy and reconfiguring taxation and entitlement spending – aimed to create constructions of extensive consequence. The 2006 elections quashed administration hopes that these ambitions could be furthered during the remainder of his presidency. Bush’s big plans are best understood in terms of the power and authority a president seeks to exercise. Power involves the resources, formal or informal, that a president has in a given period to accomplish his goals. Success with power involves husbanding the resources of the office and deploying them strategically (Skowronek 1997, 18). Powers are both formal and informal. Formal powers are numerous and widely excised by recent presidents, growing from Constitutional authority, federal law and court interpretation. Bush will have to deploy these powers more defensively in upcoming fights with the Democratic Congress. Bush’s informal powers, however, are most diminished by the 2006 elections. Informal power is a function of the “political capital” presidents amass and deplete as they operate in office. Paul Light defines several components of political capital: party support of the president in Congress, public approval of the president’s conduct of his job, the President’s electoral margin and patronage appointments (Light 1983, 15). Richard Neustadt’s concept of a president’s “professional reputation” also figures into his political capital. Neustadt defines this as the “impressions in the Washington community about the skill and will with which he puts [his formal powers] to use” (Neustadt 1990, 185). In the wake of 9/11, George W. Bush’s political capital surged and the public and Washington political elites granted him a broad power to prosecute a war on terror. By the middle of Bush’s troubled second term, beset by a lengthy occupation of Iraq and a rash of Congressional GOP scandals, he found his political capital had shrunk. Bush’s public approval, professional reputation and political support in Congress surged after 9/11, and then all three eroded in his troubled second term. After the 2006 elections, Bush’s public approval and party support in Congress have again sunk, limiting further his leadership prospects for the remainder of his presidency (PollingReport 2006). Regime Designs In recent decades Washington power structures have become more entrenched and elaborate (Drucker 1995) while presidential powers – through increased use of executive orders and legislative delegation (Howell 2003) have also grown. The presidency has more powers in the early 21st century but also faced more entrenched coalitions of interests, lawmakers and bureaucrats whose agendas often differ from that of the president. This is an invitation for an energetic 1Schier: Frustrated AmbitionsPublished by The Berkeley Electronic Press, 2006president – and that description fits George W. Bush – to engage in major ongoing battles to impose his preferences. At the center of the conflict lies the desire of presidents to create political “regimes” supported by popular approval and constitutional authority (Schier 2004, 3). A regime is a stable authority structure that reworks Washington power arrangements to facilitate its own dominance. Presidential power is intimately tied to presidential authority, defined as the “expectations that surround the exercise of power at a given moment; the perception of what it is appropriate for a given president to do” (Skowronek 1997, 18). Authority, to presidential scholar Stephen Skowronek, rests on the “warrants” drawn from the politics of the moment to justify action and secure the legitimacy of changes. The more stable a president's grant of authority, the easier his exercise of power. George W. Bush’s central project has been the promotion of a conservative Republican political regime. Politically, the administration sought persistent GOP electoral majorities through the tactic of ensuring high turnout among the party’s base voters. This delivered a reelection victory for Bush in 2004. A second tactic of the Bush White House involved courting certain target groups in the electorate for conversion – in 2004, this included women, Latinos, African Americans and Jews. Central ideas of the regime included an emphasis upon employing market forces in public policy (from market-driven environmental protection policies to private Social Security accounts), economic stimulus through recurrent tax cuts, and an aggressive foreign and military policy driven by a doctrine of preemption of international terrorist threats. Institutionally, these policies would result from partisan GOP majorities in the House and Senate and enhanced presidential control over the executive branch, through expansive use of executive orders and reorganization, many spawned by national security concerns (Schier 2004, 3-4). The 2006 election results preclude the fulfillment of the regime-level aspirations of the Bush presidency. Though the GOP


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