Good morning, it’s Tuesday, March 9, 2021. Twenty years ago today, when I was covering the White House, George W. Bush was seven weeks into his presidential tenure, as Joe Biden is today. Already, Democrats were jockeying for position in the 2004 presidential primaries, Biden among them. Bush and White House consigliere Karl Rove were more worried, however, about the presidential ambitions of another Democratic senator: Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
The unexpected defection of Vermont Republican Jim Jeffords to the opposition party had suddenly thrust Daschle into the role of Senate majority leader. It also installed Vermont’s other senator, pugnacious Patrick Leahy, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, where Leahy promptly began slow-walking Bush’s judicial appointments.
Bush and Rove didn’t want to fight about federal judges -- not then, anyway. The top priority inside the White House was getting Bush’s $1.6 trillion, 10-year tax cut through Congress. And he needed some measure of cooperation from Tom Daschle to do it. A trip was scheduled to Daschle’s home state of South Dakota.
Before coming to Washington, George W. Bush and his top political adviser, Karl Rove, had learned in Austin that keeping political disagreements on a polite plane was not only good government -- it kept legislative negotiations on track -- it was also good politics. During the 1994 gubernatorial campaign, Texas Gov. Ann Richards had derisively referred to Bush as “Shrub,” while he invariably referred to her as “Governor.” Nor did Bush always strive to score points. While the two were debating, Richards lauded the citizen volunteers who’d helped during a natural disaster. Instead of trying to one-up her or draw attention to himself, Bush simply said, “Well spoken, governor.”
Seven years later, in the early days of his presidency, Bush adopted the same approach regarding his tax bill. He traveled to “red states” he’d carried in November that were represented by Democrats in the Senate, but employed positive persuasion, not insults, to advance his cause.
In Louisiana, he tried to make it easier for Sen. Mary Landrieu to buck her Democratic leaders by holding a well-attended rally. “I get to propose things in Washington, but I don’t get to vote on them,” Bush told the crowd. “If you like what you hear, you might decide to make an e-mail or a call to some of those who represent you. That’s what politics is all about, as far as I’m concerned -- it’s the people’s will.” So yes, it was political pressure, but exerted gently.
In South Dakota, which Bush visited 20 years ago today, he was especially cordial. Daschle, the most vocal and decisive opponent to Bush tax bill, was invited by the White House to join the president at a community health center in Sioux Falls. “Sometimes we’ll agree, sometimes we won't agree, but one thing that Senator Daschle and I have agreed on is to respect each other,” Bush said as the two men stood together for photographers. “People want civility. We’re going to give them civility.” Soon, he would give Americans a tax cut, too.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.