Bush's Strong Arm Can Club Allies Too
Lawmakers, Activists Say Tactics for Enforcing Loyalty Are Tough and Sometimes Vindictive
By Dana Milbank and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 21, 2003; Page A06
Editor's note: This article was withheld from later editions of yesterday's paper to accommodate coverage of the start of the war in Iraq.
After a Newsweek cover story in 1987 titled "Bush Battles the Wimp Factor," the label stuck to George H.W. Bush for years. Now, his son is creating the opposite perception: the Bully Factor.
As the United States wages war this week following a pair of ultimatums to the United Nations and Iraq, the airwaves and editorial pages of the world have been full of accusations that President Bush and his administration are guilty of coercive and harrying behavior. Even in typically friendly countries, Bush and the United States have been given such labels this week as "arrogant bully" (Britain), "bully boys" (Australia), "big bully" (Russia), "bully Bush" (Kenya), "arrogant" (Turkey) and "capricious" (Canada). Diplomats have accused the administration of "hardball" tactics, "jungle justice" and acting "like thugs."
At home, where support for the war on Iraq is strong and growing, such complaints of strong-arm tactics by the Bush administration nonetheless have a certain resonance -- even among Bush supporters. Though the issues are vastly different, Republican lawmakers and conservative interest groups report similar pressure on allies at home to conform to Bush's policy wishes.
Although all administrations use political muscle on the opposition, GOP lawmakers and lobbyists say the tactics the Bush administration uses on friends and allies have been uniquely fierce and vindictive. Just as the administration used unbending tactics before the U.N. Security Council with normally allied countries such as Mexico, Germany and France, the Bush White House has calculated that it can overcome domestic adversaries if it tolerates no dissent from its friends.
In recent weeks, the White House has been pushing GOP governors to oust the leadership of the National Governors Association to make the bipartisan group endorse Bush's views. Interest groups report pressure from the administration -- sometimes on groups' donors -- to conform to Bush's policy views and even to fire dissenters.
Often, companies and their K Street lobbyists endorse ideas they privately oppose or question, according to several longtime Republican lobbyists. The fear is that Bush will either freeze them out of key meetings or hold a grudge that might deprive them of help in other areas, the lobbyists said. When the Electronic Industries Alliance declined to back Bush's dividend tax cut, the group was frozen out when the White House called its "friends" in the industry to discuss the tax cut, according to White House and business sources.
Under such pressure from the administration, lobbyists and lawmakers who voiced doubts about Bush's economic policies have publicly reversed themselves. "I think I should have kept my mouth shut," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said in one such recantation last month.
The forms of pressure -- exclusions from White House guest lists, a loss of access to key Bush aides, calls to dissenters' superiors, veiled threats saying the White House has noted the transgression or even shouted accusations -- convey the same message. Grover Norquist, a conservative activist who enforces loyalty for the White House, puts it this way: "If I bitch, guess what? I get coal in my socks."
The technique has served the Bush White House well by maintaining the lockstep support among Republicans needed to pass Bush policies in a closely divided Congress. "It's fascinating the extent to which this administration has been able to hold troops in line for an extended period of time," said Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution.
But on the latest round of tax cuts, there are signs of a backlash against Bush's tough tactics. In Congress, a group of moderate GOP senators and representatives said they would only support a tax cut much smaller than Bush's. And lawmakers suggest that resentment is growing beneath the surface.
More than a dozen members of Congress interviewed for this article said support for Bush's economic plan is weaker than the public might realize because lawmakers don't want to challenge the president publicly. "We don't want to stick it in the president's eye -- at the moment," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.). He said as many as 20 House Republicans oppose Bush's tax cuts, and an additional 40 or 50 are uneasy about the details and timing.
The White House says its style is vigorous but not strong-armed. "The president believes strongly in issues and he diligently pursues what he believes in on the basis of policy, and that's why he's won so many votes -- because members agree with him," press secretary Ari Fleischer said.
But GOP lawmakers have other reasons for their support. "People have come to realize that it is better to be seen helping the administration than pulling down parts of his plan," said Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.). Foley knows the consequences. He opposed Bush on a free-trade vote despite intense pressure. So when Bush senior adviser Karl Rove recently encouraged Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel R. Martinez to run for the Senate from Florida -- the same seat Foley is seeking -- many on Capitol Hill suspected it was Bush's revenge on Foley. Foley, in an interview, said he was worried he might get the "Pawlenty" treatment, a reference to last year's Minnesota Senate race, in which the Bush White House pushed out Tim Pawlenty, the GOP majority leader in the Minnesota House, to clear the way for handpicked candidate Norm Coleman.
Some of the White House's tactics have become lore. After Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) opposed Bush's first tax cut, White House slights and threats to cut his pet programs drove Jeffords from the GOP. Last year, after Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) voiced concern about Bush's immigration policy, Rove told him to never again "darken the door" of the White House.
But the hardball tactics are deeper and more pervasive.
Eager to send a message to the National Governors Association to reflect a GOP majority, the White House for the first time excluded Raymond C. Scheppach, the NGA's executive director, from the governors' annual dinner at the White House last month. Encouraged by the administration and its allies, a few Republican governors -- including the president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush -- threatened to stop dues payments or quit the group. After a bipartisan NGA committee drafted a statement seeking more federal money for the states, the White House let its displeasure be known to the governors, and Republicans arrived at the meeting last month demanding the rejection of the "partisan" statement.
Conservative interest groups get similar pressure. When the free-market Club for Growth sent a public letter to the White House to protest White House intervention in GOP primaries for "liberal-leaning Republicans," the group's president, Stephen Moore, picked up the phone at a friend's one evening to receive a screaming tirade from Rove, who had tracked him down. On another occasion when Moore objected to a Bush policy, Rove called Richard Gilder, the Club for Growth's chairman and a major contributor, to protest.
"I think this monomaniacal call for loyalty is unhealthy," Moore said. "It's dangerous to declare anybody who crosses you an enemy for life. It's shortsighted." Leaders of three other conservative groups report that their objections to Bush policies have been followed by snubs and, in at least one case, phone calls suggesting the replacement of a critical scholar. "They want sycophants rather than allies," said the head of one think tank.
Corporations are coming under increasing pressure not just to back Bush, but to hire his allies to represent them in meetings with Republicans. As part of the "K Street Project," top GOP officials, lawmakers and lobbyists track the political affiliation and contributions of people seeking lobbying jobs.
In a private meeting last week, chief executives from several leading technology firms told Rep. Calvin M. Dooley (Calif.) and other moderate Democrats that they were under heavy pressure to back the Bush tax plan, even though many of them had reservations about it. "There is a perception among some business interests there could be retribution if you don't play ball on almost every issue that comes up," Dooley said.
Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.