The president was in a funk. Morose from midterm elections that handed Congress to the opposition, he stewed in private, vented to friends, turned on aides and summoned self-help gurus to help him understand just what went wrong. He was left to argue with reporters that he was still "relevant."
It took Bill Clinton months to get his feet planted again after the 1994 defeat. But he did recover and went on to win reelection two years later. So too did Ronald Reagan bounce back from the 1986 midterm elections, which cost his party the Senate. As President Bush struggles to recover from a similar thrashing, his advisers are studying the Clinton and Reagan models for lessons to revive his presidency.
Historical comparisons are always fraught with peril, since each president faces his own distinct challenges and brings unique faculties and flaws to the task. But veterans of past administrations see patterns that offer hope even to badly weakened presidents such as Bush. Adversaries who assume that Bush has been permanently crippled by the Democratic takeover of Congress, they say, misunderstand the opportunities still available to him.
Both Reagan and Clinton found that the power of the bully pulpit still gave them an advantage over a Congress controlled by the other party. Both Reagan and Clinton used a mix of cooperation and confrontation, moving to the middle on selected issues to pass legislation while standing firm on others that touched on core principles. Both pounced when the other side overreached.
Whether Bush could emulate those examples is an open question. He points to his time as Texas governor, when he worked with Democratic legislators. But since winning the White House, he has only sporadically reached out to the other side. And unlike Reagan or Clinton, he presides over an unpopular war with no end in sight.
"He really has to make a fundamental decision, and if he hasn't made it by now, it may be too late," said Leon E. Panetta, who was Clinton's chief of staff in 1994 and now serves on a bipartisan commission on Iraq. "He has to decide whether he's going to be willing to sit down with the Democratic leadership and cut deals and get things done. And he has to decide whether Iraq is going to be his whole legacy, good or bad, or whether he wants to get other things done."
Bush's opening message since the election has been one of conciliation, in firing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, as many critics had urged, and in reaching out to incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.). "Let's let the election go," White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove said in a recent interview. "Let's say, 'Okay, where are some places where we can work together?' "
At the same time, Bush may wait for the right moment to take on Democrats. He has issued only one veto in six years in office but would be eager to veto Democratic spending bills. "The question is if they want to test him on the veto," said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy. "If I were them, I wouldn't. If they're trying to present themselves as the party of fiscal discipline," it would be a mistake to let a spending bill be vetoed.
Another senior official said Reagan and Clinton showed that carefully choosing battles is a fruitful strategy after a midterm defeat. "The broad lesson is that presidents can come back from setbacks," he said. "There are some things you control and some things you can't control, and you have to try to take advantage of both."
Seizing the initiative
While Democrats controlled the House throughout Reagan's presidency, Republicans held the Senate for six years, and the 1986 loss was a sharp blow. Even worse, it was followed by revelations that the White House sold arms to Iran to gain the release of hostages and diverted some proceeds to contra rebels in Nicaragua. "The president was very down," recalled John C. Tuck, an aide at the time. Reagan's approval rating plummeted. "It was south, south, south in the spring of '87. It was scary south, and it wasn't improving," Tuck said.
Reagan dumped Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan and brought in former senator Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) and deputy Kenneth Duberstein. Baker insisted on a new agenda for Reagan -- any agenda -- to allow him to seize the initiative again.
Reagan accommodated congressional Democrats. "I don't think Reagan consciously said, 'I've got to become more moderate,' but the goals became different," said Frank J. Donatelli, his White House political director. "I don't think there was any thought after '87 that we were going to get any new major conservative social legislation through."
Reagan turned his attention overseas, and overtures to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev led to a thaw in the Cold War and a major arms-control treaty. By 1988, Reagan was ready to challenge Congress, showing up at his State of the Union address with 3,300 pages in budget bills and vowing to veto any more like them. He left office with his popularity, and presidency, resurrected. "There's no question Reagan was buried by a lot of people," Donatelli said, "and it's pretty remarkable where he was a year and a half later."
Clinton's trial by ballot box came earlier in his tenure and sent him into a tailspin. "He really took it very personally," said Harold Ickes, who was his deputy chief of staff.
Not only did Clinton seek out self-help experts, he reopened a secret channel to an old adviser, Dick Morris, without telling his aides. He groped for a strategy as new Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) dominated Washington. Five months after the election, Clinton was still on his heels, insisting at a news conference that "the Constitution gives me relevance."
If that was the low point, the recovery arguably began the next day. After a federal building was bombed in Oklahoma City, Clinton gave voice to the nation's grief and resolve, serving as chaplain-in-chief. "In my view, he really became the president at that point," Ickes said. "He really struck a chord with the country that crossed party lines."
‘A real turnaround’
His confidence restored, Clinton began to maneuver with Gingrich, reaching a handshake deal in New Hampshire to review campaign finance and lobbying rules. Clinton wanted a budget deal, too, but Gingrich rejected him. Finally, Clinton called his bluff and the government briefly shut down. Clinton ended up looking strong again, while Gingrich was hurt by his complaints that he was made to disembark from Air Force One from the rear.
"That was a real turnaround for Bill Clinton," Panetta said. "Not only did it send the message to the American people about the real differences . . . but it gave him real momentum to move into the reelection effort." Clinton hit the campaign trail and crushed GOP Sen. Robert J. Dole (Kan.) to win a second term.
In the weeks since the Nov. 7 elections, Bush has already started down the paths forged by Reagan and Clinton. Just as Reagan fired Regan, Bush deferred to the Washington elite by ousting Rumsfeld and choosing Establishment favorite Robert M. Gates to replace him. He has left town to focus on foreign policy; he just got back from Asia and leaves today for Europe and the Middle East. By design or happenstance, he will have slept in the White House just 10 nights out of the first 25 after the elections.
Like Clinton, he has identified issues on which he thinks he can meet the opposition in the middle, including the minimum wage, education, immigration, energy and lobbying. But Bush has also signaled that he will fight over issues such as judicial nominations.
"Clinton had an imperative in '96 to get reelected," said Steve Elmendorf, a top House Democratic strategist at the time. "Bush, his imperative is more about his legacy. That gives him more running room to move to the center if he wants to and leave his party behind, because he doesn't have to run for reelection."
And yes, the Constitution gives him relevance. Now Bush's future depends on how he uses it. "You can never underestimate the power of the presidency because the president has the bully pulpit," said former representative Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.), a Gingrich ally. "And no matter how powerful you are on Capitol Hill, you can't really match that."