WASHINGTON -- When George W. Bush announced that he would make an unprecedented visit to their policy retreat at Farmington, Pa., last Sunday, House Democrats loaded up for a shoot-out. By Monday morning, Democratic spin doctors passed the word that the president was so dim that he isn't up to the job.
President Bush may have been misled about Washington by the polite Senate Democratic retreat and warm bipartisan White House meetings. The pugnacious House Democratic Caucus transformed what the president thought was a get-acquainted session into Bush-baiting on social policies.
The rookie would have been justified in returning to the White House to tell the first lady: Laura, we're not in Texas anymore! Rep. Robert Matsui, a mild-mannered Californian, was stunned when he entered Congress 22 years ago after serving on the Sacramento City Council and suggested the president is experiencing the same culture shock. "Everything is different," he told me. "They play for keeps in this town."
Democratic lawmakers were surprised Sunday to see Bush show up with only two people: Chief of Staff Andrew Card and the president's brother-in-law, wine industry lobbyist Bobby Koch (a Democrat and former aide to House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt). This was seen as a neighborly Sunday visit by the president.
That indicates poor intelligence by the White House. Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York was primed to confront Bush on the census. Would he accept counting Americans by sampling instead of enumerating every citizen as mandated by the Constitution? Should holdover acting Census Director William Barron be permitted to release sampling for use in congressional redistricting and adjusting federal payments?
The census is part of a national Democratic strategy to maximize the African-American and Hispanic votes. Maloney's questions intended to launch a campaign, with echoes of Florida 2000, that Republicans fear counting of minority votes.
Maloney treated the president like an antagonist in New York City's left-wing Democratic politics, demanding answers so harshly that even some colleagues were taken aback. It is hard to imagine a less effective answer than the president's. He said he had not been briefed fully (in fact, his own aides happen to be divided on census strategy).
Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, seeking to be the first woman member of the elected House Democratic leadership, was only marginally less aggressive than Maloney. She challenged Bush's cutoff of U.S. aid for family planning in foreign countries, contending it would not specifically pay for abortions. When he responded that money is fungible, she seized on his faith-based initiative's social welfare spending assumption that money is not fungible in this instance and would not be used to buy Bibles.
Although a few friendly Democrats called the White House to apologize for Pelosi, groans from her colleagues reacting to the president's answers showed that they thought they were still in the House cockpit. Semantic debate is not Bush's strong suit, and he clearly did not go all the way to Pennsylvania to argue with Nancy Pelosi.
The problem for Bush is reflected in the very liberal Rep. Bob Filner of California. As a member from San Diego on the Mexican border, he telephoned the president two weeks ago and asked whether he could accompany him on his forthcoming state visit to Mexico. Bush responded, quickly and courteously, that though he was taking no congressmen on this trip, he wanted to include Filner in future U.S.-Mexico discussions. Filner had not been treated that nicely by Clinton over eight years.
But after half an hour in Farmington Sunday, Filner told me he was disappointed by Bush: "He had no answers to the questions he was asked. He avoided everything." Other Democrats noted that Bush, during a hand-shaking session, was introduced to Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald of California and reacted by saying she had the longest name in Congress. These congressmen wanted to know why he was briefed on trivia and not the census.
There are surely limits to the use of charm. The president's affability and punctuality only go so far. The House Democrats he visited tried to embarrass him, oppose him on basic questions and want him to fail. That is a good lesson for George W. Bush after two weeks in office.