Pitfalls of arrogance

Posted: Jul 28, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- As Congress hurried last week to clear its agenda so it could leave town for its August recess, the House of Representatives defied President Bush on two important issues -- and did so by big margins. This suggested the political omnipotence of the Bush White House has been exaggerated. It also pointed to the pitfalls of arrogance.

-- Last Wednesday afternoon, the House passed an appropriations bill overruling Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decisions to ease anti-monopoly restrictions on acquisition of television stations. Although the president had signaled he would veto such a provision, only 21 votes were cast against the bill (while 400 members, including all Republican leaders, voted for it).

-- At 2:51 a.m. Friday morning, the House risked another veto by voting for re-importation of drugs from Canada. Right up to the roll call, White House operatives (and pharmaceutical industry lobbyists) predicted a very close vote. It wasn't. The bill passed 243 to 186, with 87 Republicans splitting from their leadership to support the bill.

Why did Bush's usually dependable allies in the House desert him on these two issues? The threats from a president who has yet to veto any bill were not taken seriously. If Bush found no difficulty deviating from the conservative line on education, campaign finance reform and expanding Medicare subsidies, Republican House members had no trouble deserting the president on two issues with substantial support from their core constituents and opposition from television and pharmaceutical interests.

Beyond these practical considerations, however, lies a deeper problem that the Bush political team does not fully perceive. The word frequently heard around Capitol Hill last week to describe the White House was "arrogant."

The complaints, taken in isolation, might seem petty. Telephone calls from the Hill are not returned by the White House. Congressional appointments with senior officials are difficult to make and sometimes broken. Senior lawmakers are admonished by junior White House aides to refrain from being too chummy with Democrats.

This litany of irritations adds up to a perception of smugness by the president and his inner circle. Considering the alternative of nine liberal Democrats running for president, the Bush operation implies there is no place for Republican critics to go. The two jewels in the president's crown -- his vigorous management of the war against terrorism and his determination to keep cutting taxes -- are seen at the White House as sufficient to satisfy his base. Presidential strategists believe relentless, often vicious Democratic attacks on Iraq and taxes will only solidify Republican ranks.

To demonstrate their irritation and signify they have no fear of retaliation by Bush, House Republicans last week defied the president on two heavily lobbied issues. At the same time the White House was indicating the president would sign any Medicare bill, his supporters took the anti-Bush side on two popular questions.

The veto threat and leaks that Michael Powell might resign as FCC chairman if he is overruled by Congress reflected failure to perceive genuine grass roots opposition to further concentration of radio and television stations. The White House never had a chance to win, but slender support on the House floor astounded veteran Congress-watchers. The rejection of their president and the possible loss of the highly esteemed Powell did not seem to bother House Republicans.

The drug re-importation issue provided another indication of a politically tone-deaf White House. After this column reported how emotional hostility to the drug makers pointed to their defeat in the House, pharmaceutical lobbyists assured me they had votes to spare and Bush operatives predicted victory. "I was not sent here by drug companies," Republican Rep. Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri, a sponsor of re-importation, told the House. But Emerson, normally a regular Republican, was bucking the White House as well as the pharmaceutical interests.

With the quiet days of August preceding the early start of the presidential campaign, this might be a good time for the president's team to engage in a little self-analysis and even self-criticism. On the contrary, indications from the White House suggest that last week's defeats were considered relatively unimportant and of no great concern. Arrogance is a difficult trait to correct.