While Iraq continues to be the defining issue of our time, other issues have also contributed to President Bush’s low popularity ratings. In many cases, these political gaffes could have been easily avoided. In one instance (as I’ll describe below), a major political story might have been avoided merely by offering the complainant some hot coffee.
What is more, several of these negative news stories could have been avoided by understanding the histories of presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. To paraphrase historian Arnold Toynbee, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
What follows are four maxims that President Bush failed to adhere to. Perhaps this can serve as a primer for future GOP leaders ...
1. Always Keep a Secure Home Base
Conservative leader Morton Blackwell advises conservative candidates to “Always keep a secure home base.” But in his second term, George W. Bush failed to follow this sage advice. Whether it was nominating Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, failing to attend the Conservative Political Action Convention (unlike Ronald Reagan, who spoke at CPAC numerous times), or, most recently, his unpopular support of Amnesty, President Bush has recently failed to “dance with the one who ‘brung him.” Any candidate who breaks this tried-and-true political maxim does so at his own peril.
The next GOP President should avoid making similar mistakes. A great, albeit symbolic first step, would be to actually show up at CPAC...
2. Put Away Foolish Pride
During the dark days of the Great Depression, when thousands of World War I Veterans (called the "Bonus Army") showed up in Washington, DC to demand immediate payment of their bonuses, Herbert Hoover foolishly called in the real Army.
A year later, when the Bonus Army returned, newly elected president Franklin Roosevelt sent his wife Eleanor to chat with them. She brought coffee, and convinced many of them to sign up for newly created jobs making roads.
While neither Hoover nor FDR paid the bonuses, FDR got credit for caring. As one veteran reportedly put it: "Hoover sent the army, Roosevelt sent his wife."
One wanders how much trouble Bush would avoided if he had simply met with Cindy Sheehan. Of course, he would argue that he had already met with her – and that, on principle, he shouldn’t cave in to her demands.
But (prior to her proving herself to be mentally unstable) the public was understandably sympathetic to the mother of a fallen soldier (just as the public was sympathetic to the bonus marchers).
The next GOP President must realize that perception is reality, and the saying goes, “Sometimes you’ve got to rise above principle and do what’s right. Besides, sometimes giving your enemies what they want is the surest way to destroy them, because it deprives them of their "issue" ...”[# More #]
3. Don’t Be an Island
Democrats criticize Bush for failing to build International alliances, but his failure to build Congressional alliances has also hurt the president.
A recent article from The Hill illustrates just how poorly the Bush Administration has handled Congress. In the article, Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), said:
We had better relationships with the [White House] legislative affairs shop when Clinton was the president — even after we impeached him.
Perhaps even more concerning, Jones said that only one of five colleagues could correctly Candida Wolff, the assistant to the president for legislative affairs.
In his excellent political primer, Hardball, Chris Matthews writes of Ronald Reagan attending a dinner at the House gym:
When I attended my first such dinner in 1981, I was surprised to see two other guests: George (H.W.) Bush and Ronald Reagan. They had come for no other apparent reason than to share a drink and have their pictures taken with members …
Jimmy Carter never attended a gym dinner.
Reagan, whose contempt for government dwarfed Carter’s, was not about to make personal relationships suffer because of personal or philosophical differences. He made an effort to win over that permanent Washington “establishment” that can either help an Administration or grease its decline.
While Ronald Reagan was the consummate “outsider,” he realized the importance of building alliances among the DC and Congressional elite. President Bush has followed a different path.
The next GOP President must also realize that reaching out isn’t “selling out.” From day one, the next GOP President should seek to build alliances with Congress. While there are 535 Members (in the House and the Senate), a little personal attention goes a long way.
4. Show Up
In his fabulous book, Leadership, Rudy Giuliani shares a rule: “Weddings are optional, funerals are mandatory.” His point is that during times of crisis, you absolutely must show up.
When Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans in 1965, Lyndon Johnson went there. In fact, here is the second line of his speech:
Today at 3 o'clock when Senator Long and Congressman Boggs and Congressman Willis called me on behalf of the entire Louisiana delegation, I put aside all the problems on my desk to come to Louisiana as soon as I could.
Now, I have no doubt that George W. Bush is more compassionate than Lyndon Johnson – but I also do not doubt LBJ was a better politician. The point is that perception is reality, and when it comes to perception, George W. Bush’s failure to immediately go to New Orleans, was a PR disaster. What is more, flying over the site (rather than landing) created an even more aloof image.
George W. Bush’s late arrival in New York (post 9-11) was overlooked. Sadly, I believe this taught him the wrong lesson.
The next GOP President must accept the fact that some Americans already view the GOP as the less “caring” party. As such, we must remember Woody Allen’s saying that, “99 percent of life is just showing up.” He was right. Showing up covers a multitude of sins.
The obvious criticism of this piece is that it does not compare the lessons of Vietnam to Iraq. I have consciously chosen to leave the Iraq issue on the sidelines. While it is unclear if Bush’s involvement in Iraq will someday bear fruit, it is highly unlikely that his failure to immediately show up in Hurricane-savaged New Orleans will not begin to look sagacious, over time.
While there are obviously a million things that any president could do differently, this list includes major gaffes that could have easily been solved merely by applying tried-and-true political maxims.
With any luck, our next President will read this list – and hang these rules on his bathroom mirror.