Are vetoes the key to a Bush recovery?

Former US President Bill Clinton (L) loo
Could President Bush learn from his predecessor's play book when it comes to vetoes? The two men are seen here at a White House event on Sept. 1, 2005. Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images
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Usually a fan of mountain biking, President Bush will soon get exercise of a less aerobic but more potent sort: using his pen to veto legislation.

Bush seems to relish the opportunity to veto the Iraq war funding bill that Congress will send him in the next few weeks. He contends that it imposes impermissible limits on his commander-in-chief powers and adds billions in unrelated spending to his request.

On Tuesday he urged Democratic leaders to “send me this unacceptable bill as quickly as possible…. I'll veto it, and then Congress can get down to the business of funding our troops without strings and without delay.”

In his first six years in the White House, Bush vetoed only one bill, a measure to allow federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

But like his predecessor Bill Clinton, Bush now faces a Congress in control of his adversaries. Clinton used his veto battles with Congress to recover his footing after the Republicans got control in 1994.

A defining moment of Clinton’s presidency was Oct. 19, 1995 when he threw down the gauntlet to House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. “I will not let you destroy Medicare and I will veto this bill,” Clinton said referring to GOP legislation curbing the future growth of Medicare spending.

The standoff between Republican leaders and Clinton led to the government shutdown at the end of 1995. Clinton won the perception battle on Medicare and it helped him win a second term.

'Demonizing' Republicans in 1995
“You guys took extraordinary advantage, very correctly so, of demonizing us,” Dole’s advisor Sheila Burke told Clinton strategist George Stephanopoulos during a 1996 campaign post-mortem at Harvard University. “We essentially lost the public relations war early in December (1995).”

“Clinton’s skillful and aggressive use of the veto was a hallmark of his domestic presidency after the Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994,” said Princeton University political scientist Charles Cameron, author of Veto Bargaining: Presidents and the Politics of Negative Power. “In some respects, he was more successful opposing Congress than he had been leading it, when the Democrats controlled the institution.”

But vetoing lots of bills doesn’t necessarily make a president popular. President Harry Truman issued 250 vetoes, including “pocket vetoes” of legislation after Congress had adjourned. In his final year in the White House, Truman’s approval rating as measured by the Gallup Poll was only 22 percent, 12 points lower than Bush’s current rating.

Whatever the polling might say, the numbers that truly matter are 290, the number of votes needed to override a veto in the House, and 67, the number needed in the Senate.

Some Democratic leaders forecast Bush winning the Iraq veto fight. “I don’t think that we will see a majority of the Senate vote to cut off funding at this stage,” said Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. Sunday. “Nobody wants to play chicken with our troops on the ground,” he said.

Did Obama 'surrender' to Bush?
Obama’s assessment drew scorn from Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of the Daily Kos web site. “Instead of threatening Bush with even more restrictions and daring him to veto funding for the troops out of pique, Barack just surrendered to him,” Moulitsas wrote.

Bush’s veto threat may pay some dividends in that he’s splitting the Democratic ranks. While Obama sounds resigned to Bush winning on the veto, his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton said Tuesday, “This is vetoing the will of the American people.” She added that “I’m not ready to concede” that Bush will ultimately make his veto stick.

Bush’s aides have indicated he’ll also veto:

  • The same bill he vetoed last year on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.
  • A measure requiring the government to negotiate discounts with pharmaceutical firms that sell drugs to Medicare.
  • The “Employee Free Choice Act” which strengthens labor unions by abolishing the requirement that elections at a workplace to determine whether workers want to unionize be conducted by secret ballot.

Each of these bills passed the House earlier this year, but not by a veto-proof majority. None has yet been considered by the Senate. It seems almost certain that Bush’s vetoes of them will be sustained.

Bush not on '08 ballot, but vetoes will be
Even though Bush himself won’t be on the 2008 ballot, his vetoes will be. Democrats will re-fight the veto battles all over again next year, highlighting any Republican in a competitive district — such as Rep. Jim Walsh of Syracuse, N.Y.— who supports Bush on Iraq, embryonic stem cell funding, and other issues.

Cameron said that since Bush and the Democrats agree on so few things, “very quickly both sides will run out of easy deals. Given the President's policy preferences it will generally be easier for Congress to try to win via overrides rather than appealing to the President. Which means veto over-ride players — like say, Senator Chuck Hagel, R- Neb. — will emerge as critical players.”

If a presidential rejection always means “vetoing the will of the American people,” in Sen. Clinton’s words, one has to assume that Congress reflects the will of the people when it passes legislation.

Congress passed the bill restraining Medicare spending growth in 1995, but when President Clinton vetoed it, he did so on the hunch that he, not GOP leaders Dole and Gingrich, correctly read the minds of the electorate.

As Dole’s advisor Burke said one month after the 1996 election, “One of the things the Clinton campaign bet on, and I think correctly so, was that there was a predisposition to believe Republicans were mean.”

Burke then told President Clinton's pollster Mark Penn, who is now Hillary Clinton’s pollster, “You bet on that perception, and you invested in building on that perception and it was very successful… because it confirmed all of the people’s worst fears — (that) we (Republicans) hated the safety-net programs, we didn’t care about the blind and the lame….”

Discounting veto rhetoric
Just as Clinton’s “I will not let you destroy Medicare” sounded hyperbolic to his GOP critics, so too with some of the current Iraq veto rhetoric which, Cameron said, has to be taken at a discount.

“Both sides have to say the sort of things they are now saying — and each will be able to point to polls and elections to support their rhetoric,” said Cameron.

“On occasion during periods of highly polarized politics (like now), both sides find it in their interest to stage a ‘blame game veto’ — public theater that paints the other side in the worst possible light. The current Iraq funding bill is a classic example.”

One lesson some members of Congress drew from last November’s election was that that the public was fed up with partisan discord. If that’s true, would a veto antagonize a public tired of confrontation?

“Most Americans prefer an appearance of consensus to honest, open disagreement,” Cameron said. “But vetoes are all about confrontation, disagreement, and bargaining. Frequently, though, they lead to compromises. And in a period in which most voters are moderates and most politicians extremists, the public often finds the results of veto politics surprisingly palatable, even though they hate the process that brings about the compromise.”

Vetoes look good to Romney
For the party facing the prospect being in the congressional minority for several years, the veto power looks alluring.

That seems to be the message of an ad debuting this week from GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney.

The former Massachusetts governor, who faced an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature for four years, promises, “If I'm elected President, I'm going to cap non-defense discretionary spending at inflation minus one percent…. And if Congress sends me a budget that exceeds that cap, I will veto that budget. And I know how to veto. I like vetoes. I've vetoed hundreds of spending appropriations as Governor.”

Romney's message was aimed at fiscal conservatives who have criticized Bush for not using his veto to kill what they see as profligate spending bills during the first six years of his presidency when the Republicans ran Congress.