The Political Value of Vetoes

Posted: Oct 30, 2007 10:35 AM
The Political Value of Vetoes

President George W. Bush set the record by not vetoing a single piece of legislation in his entire first term. Then in the first two years of his second term the President vetoed but a single bill. That, of course, made the record books. Now, it would seem, the Administration is issuing a position paper a day indicating if this bill or that reached his desk he would veto it. Better late than never. The Bush Administration has less than a year to veto bills because Congress will want to adjourn for the 2008 election. My guess is that Congress will stay in session fairly long, especially if it remains unpopular. Should Congress recover its popularity before election day it would adjourn sooner. But should it continue to remain less popular than President Bush it would remain in session, claiming to do the people’s business, until three weeks before the election or thereabouts. That would take the mind of the people off individual Congressmen and focus upon issues Congress would attempt to pass.

This President has a problem. Because he did not veto any bill for so long, he must establish credibility in the minds of the American public. His excuse for not vetoing bills for so long, by the way, was that he did not want to argue with the Republican-controlled Congress. Thus, he permitted Congress to get by with profligate spending. He also allowed Congress to pass other bills regulating the economy which he claimed were against Administration policy. Time and again the President drew a line in the sand and time and time again he kept moving the line to the point at which no one took him seriously. Unfortunately for this President, he no longer has needed credibility and he has a very short time to establish same.

This is the third Republican President in my lifetime in the position of exciting his base by using his veto pen. In the 1958 election Democrats won a victory which makes the 2006 victory appear to be almost irrelevant. Democrats won about a two-thirds margin in the Congress. President Dwight D. Eisenhower enjoyed a Republican-controlled Congress for only two years of his Presidency. But in the election of 1954 and again in 1956 the margins were very close. Then there was far less partisanship than there now is. Yet during the years from 1953 until 1958 President Eisenhower vetoed a sufficient number of bills that when he decided on a veto strategy following the 1958 election he had the credibility to do so. What amazed the media is that veto after veto of that period beginning in 1959 and through the election period of 1960 was upheld, even though President Eisenhower had no margin to spare. In those days conservative Democrats often supported the President. The vetoing especially of appropriations bills excited the Republican base. Because of that Vice President Richard M. Nixon was nearly elected President in 1960. In fact, there was evidence to show that votes were stolen and that it was Nixon and not John F. Kennedy who won that razor-thin election but Nixon “for the good of the country” chose not to challenge the results. The point is that if Eisenhower had not excited the troops during his last Congress while in office the result would not have been close.

Another President who used the veto strategy was Gerald R. Ford. Ford was our one and only President never elected either President or Vice President. He first became an appointed Vice President when Vice President Spiro T. Agnew was forced to resign over corruption charges. Then when President Nixon himself was forced to resign or face impeachment charges Ford became President. At first Ford was enormously popular, proclaiming that “at long last America’s long nightmare is over.” But then Ford pardoned Nixon and there were rumors of a behind-the-scenes deal. The public turned on Ford with a vengeance. In fact, he was so far behind whomever the Democrats would nominate that he was just written off. Not only popular California Governor Ronald W. Reagan announced he was running against Ford. The situation appeared hopeless—that is, until President Ford pulled out his veto pen. Congress sent Ford appropriations bill after appropriations bill which were far greater than the Administration had proposed. In addition, Congress sent Ford new authorizations of programs of which Ford did not approve. Ford vetoed and vetoed. He excited the soul of the Republican Party. As a matter of fact, I delivered the news to Ronald Reagan at a dinner we had that Senator Carl T. Curtis (R-NE), Chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, and a host of other conservative Senators were supporting Ford. Reagan had counted on these conservative Senators to be in his camp. It was a startling blow to Reagan. When Reagan asked me for an explanation I said one word, “Vetoes.”

In fact, it was vetoes which made for another razor-thin election in 1976 over the Democratic nominee, Jimmy Carter. Again, there was evidence of voter fraud in a couple of small states which might have thrown the election to Ford, but as was the case with Nixon, Ford chose not to contest the election results.

The next opportunity for a Republican President to save himself via the veto strategy came with the Presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush. Bush ’41 had succeeded Ronald Reagan. There was very little that the electorate knew about the elder Bush except his words pronounced during his acceptance speech, “Read my lips. No new taxes.” That phrase stuck with Bush and along the way he had vetoed enough bills to be credible. But when the moment of truth presented itself, Bush, instead of vetoing the tax increase the Democrats presented to him, capitulated and agreed to the tax increase. It ruined his otherwise successful Presidency. Had he just vetoed that tax increase he almost certainly would have been re-elected in 1992, especially considering his success in the Gulf War.

That brings us to Bush ’43. He is now anxious to veto bills which the Democratic Congress will send him. The problem is the very close margin in the United States Senate. There are 49 Republicans in the Senate. It takes 60 votes to pass anything in that body. And Minority Leader A. Mitchell (Mitch) McConnell (R-KY) can filibuster bills. For example, the “Mother of all tax revisions” proposed by House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY) would be “dead upon arrival” if it passed the House and reached the Senate. The fact is President Bush will receive too few bills to veto. Most bills, even if passed by the House, would not get the 60 votes necessary to pass the Senate and be sent to the President. So it is too bad for Bush ’43. He most likely would not have enough bills to veto in the next year to excite the grassroots. No doubt Bush wishes he had vetoed more bills all along so that he would not have to use the few remaining bills to establish credibility. Republicans can only hope that in the next year he receives a sufficient number of bills to veto that the base will get excited. It is unlikely but who knows.