Posted on February 19, 2001 in Washington Watch

Washington is experiencing an unusual drama. While a new president is attempting to find his footing and present his agenda before the American people, an ex-president remains in the spotlight, relentlessly attacked by his former foes.

President George W. Bush’s first month in office has, by any measure, been a success. The Senate has approved his cabinet. Bush satisfied his conservative base by appointing individuals who passed their ideological litmus tests. The President also issued a few executive orders that pleased conservatives, while acting to delay the implementation of some of President Clinton’s last-minute executive orders that had displeased Republicans.

At the same time, Bush engaged in what the press referred to as a “charm offensive.” In his first week in office he invited more than 90 members of Congress to visit him at the White House. One-third of this group was leading Democrats. Republicans emerged from these sessions confident that Bush would remain true to his conservative campaign promises. Democrats, surprised by the new President’s gracious invitations, reported that they were impressed by his willingness to listen to their concerns.

Having completed this inaugural ritual, Bush embarked on an ambitious program to present his agenda to the broader public. Operating on a campaign style timetable, the new President has sought to focus each week on a different set of issues.

The first week was directed at his education program, complete with visits to schools and discussions with educators. During the second week Bush used a series of events to direct attention to his proposal to cut taxes by some $1.6 trillion during the next 10 years.

This past week Bush focused on national security issues featuring visits to military bases and the State Department. During this week the President called for increases in pay and benefits for U.S. military personnel and a full review of U.S. military strategy and commitments. (A striking departure from the U.S. President’s disciplined approach to “message control” came late last week when Bush confounded his Mexican host, President Vincente Fox, by overshadowing their meeting with a surprise bombing attack against Iraq. The bombing insulted the Mexicans who had hoped that the visit would focus attentions on the U.S.-Mexican relationship.

Democrats, charmed, but not too charmed have countered many of the President’s moves. And, to some degree, they too have had their successes. For example, while Democrats did not succeed in blocking any of Bush’s new cabinet members, their bruising questioning of the new Attorney General and their 42 votes in opposition to his nomination did send a signal that the White House will be sure to note.

Similarly, Democratic opposition to Bush’s campaign promise to use federal government funds to support a controversial school voucher program, is the probable reason why the President omitted this proposal from the education agenda he is sending to Congress.

The most intense debate, however, has been reserved for the matter of taxes and what to do with the federal government surplus that some estimates project may be as high as $5.3 trillion over the next 10 years.

While the new President proposes giving at least one-third of this projected surplus back to taxpayers in a tax cut, Democrats, and a number of moderate Republicans, feel that it is too risky to pass a $1.6 trillion tax cut plan.

They counter that it is wiser to use the surplus, where it exists, to pay down the national debt (which is currently more than $2 trillion). They note that the hundreds of billions the government is forced to pay in annual interest on this debt is the second largest line item in the annual budget. Democrats also propose using the remainder of the projected surplus, when it exists, to secure needed federal commitments (in Social Security benefits and health care) and only then, to entertain a tax cut.

Given current estimates Democrats and moderate Republicans suggest that a tax cut of about $800 billion is all that they can reasonably support.

This, of course, would not be a defeat for Bush. Should the Congress “only” give him an $800 billion tax cut this would be twice as large as the cut Democrats proposed in the 2000 election and almost as large as the plan initially proposed by Republicans in 2000.

And so, all in all, Bush seems to be off to a fairly smooth and relatively uninterrupted start. Except for one thing. He is not in the headlines. While the new President is attempting to define his presidency and agenda, too much of the nation’s media is focusing on the continuing effort by some members of Congress (now joined by a U.S. Attorney in New York City) to investigate or simply complain about a number of decisions made by former President Bill Clinton in the weeks before he left office.

The press has been relentless. They scoffed at Clinton’s “farewell” and then attempted to make an issue of the “gifts” he and his wife took from the White House and claimed as their personal property. Next came an uproar when it appeared that Clinton was proposing to lease office space in New York City that would cost taxpayers almost $750,000 per year. Finally, attention has been focused on a few highly questionable presidential pardons Clinton granted at the end of his term.

Clinton has so far managed to deal with most of these issues. The gifts issue has been largely resolved and turned out to be “much to do about nothing.” The terribly unwise proposal to rent expensive office space in mid-town Manhattan has been countered by a surprise effort to move to a far-less expensive space in the African American neighborhood of Harlem.

What remains to hound the former President is his use of his power to pardon those accused of or convicted of crimes. The U.S. Constitution grants presidents absolute power to grant such clemency. Other presidents’ use of their pardon power has created controversy in the past. In the past it has been a matter of some controversy. When former President Ford pardoned former President Nixon, many were relieved, but others were outraged. Similarly when former President Bush pardoned those accused or convicted in the Iran-Contra affair many were troubled by that act.

But Clinton is a unique character in U.S. history. The hatred the right wing has felt for him is unparalleled, as is his carelessness or foolishness in doing things to fuel their contempt. And the dubious developments that surround at least one of Clinton’s pardons, that of a fugitive accused of tax evasion and trading with Iran, are clearly a case in point.

Some suspect that at the very end of the day, Clinton will be found innocent of any actual wrongdoing. Nevertheless the appearance of wrongdoing has been enough to bring about a congressional hearing, an investigation by a U.S Attorney, a suggestion that Clinton may again be impeached by Congress, and a steady stream of negative press and nasty political chatter on the 24-hour news channels.

Some pundits suggest that Bush is the beneficiary of all of this negative attention on his predecessor. They note that he appears refreshing in the face of continuing Clinton controversy. Others are suggesting that that has been precisely the reason they suspect the controversy is brewing in the first place: to remove Clinton as spokesperson for the Democrats by hanging a continuing cloud over his head. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) reinforced that view when he noted “it [the Clinton pardon issue] has been a godsend for President Bush, Because it’s certainly made him look good by comparison.”

Bush for his part, has been far more gracious. He chided reporters recently noting “it’s time to move on…it’s time to stay looking forward and that’s what I’m going to do.”

It is unlikely, however, that either the press or Congress will move on. And so this overly long and increasingly awkward transition period will continue, with the new President still working to define himself, while others persist in the wasted pursuit of the former President.

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