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President George W. Bush took another important step last week in defining who he is and what he will fight for. It was the kind of bold move that will be talked about for years after he has left the presidency. He placed principle ahead of politics – which is pretty close to a man bites dog story these days.
President Bush is a Republican. He cares about his party. He’d like the Republicans to keep their majority in the House and recapture control of the Senate. Towards that end, he has personally raised millions of dollars for candidates this year, and dispatched his well-respected vice president Dick Cheney to do the same thing.
President Bush has actively recruited candidates and quietly discouraged others not to run. One of those recruited candidates is young rising star in the Republican Party, Rep. John Thune of South Dakota. Rep. Thune early on made clear he would prefer to remain in the House of Representatives. But, he couldn’t resist the recruiting efforts of President Bush, so he is now the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in South Dakota. Thune is locked in a close race with the incumbent senator, Tim Johnson. South Dakota, of course, is the home state of Democrat Senate Majority Leader, Tom Daschle. So, the political stakes just couldn’t be higher. And clearly, this president understands and cares about politics.
The president’s actions last week, however, strongly suggest he cares more about principle, than politics. First, let me provide a little background. South Dakota is currently in the midst of one its worst droughts on record. For farmers and ranchers, the drought has caused real economic hardship. The congressional delegation, including Rep. Thune is asking for federal disaster assistance.
President Bush traveled to South Dakota last week. The trip was perfectly timed politically. The president could announce from the podium, along side Rep. Thune, with Mt. Rushmore as a backdrop, that he would deliver drought relief in the form of federal dollars. But that isn’t what the president did. Instead, he traveled to South Dakota, and from the podium, with Mt. Rushmore perhaps providing the inspiration, George W. Bush said no. He said federal spending is a problem – and it is – and to bring fiscal discipline to Washington, he needed to say no to the good people of South Dakota.
Wow! What an un-Clintonesque moment. Could anyone imagine, in the midst of a political campaign, Bill Clinton putting politics aside and standing on principle? Could you imagine Bill Clinton having the guts to go to South Dakota to deliver the news? Remember when Clinton annexed half of the state of Utah right before the 1996 elections. Utah, of course wasn’t going to vote for Clinton anyway, and he was keeping his environmental base happy with a breathtakingly sweeping executive order that put a huge chunk of the state off limits to any commercial development. Clinton didn’t even have the guts to go to Utah – he made the announcement from Colorado in a spot overlooking Utah.
Everyone agrees, President Bush’s decision wasn’t the right move politically. "I'm not sure South Dakota was the race to start playing tough love," said Jennifer Duffy, a campaign analyst with the respected nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. Fair point, but great leaders are not defined as those who always do the safe political thing.
President Bush understands that federal spending is out of control. Congress cannot check its appetite for more and more spending – and this is a bipartisan problem. The President himself has made some mistakes in this area. The farm bill and the education bill stand out as excessive. But, he now appears to be getting serious about using the presidency as a bulwark against Congress’s desire to spend.
The president easily could have helped out his friend whom he recruited to run for the Senate. It wouldn’t have been surprising or received that much attention. But the president instead decided to send a message to Congress. He will block excessive spending. He will take political risks to limit the size and scope of government. He does place principle over politics.
Compare that with his chief political opponent – Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. Earlier this year, Daschle said, “I have one focus, and that is exclusively on maintaining a majority of the Senate.” Daschle may well succeed in achieving this objective.
But Bush has already won. When we go to teach our children about values, which story will be retold as the example of how to behave? The leader who did the difficult thing, but remained true to his principles, or the politician who put partisanship ahead of everything else? That’s why President Bush has a chance to be remembered as a great leader, and at best Tom Daschle has a chance to be remembered as a great politician. Take your pick.