What can President Obama learn from President Bush’s bipartisan successes?

Conventional wisdom says the tenure of President George W. Bush was dominated by partisanship. There were deep partisan splits over the war in Iraq, enhanced interrogation, wiretapping, the 2003 tax cuts, and Social Security reform.

This conventional wisdom ignores significant bipartisan legislative accomplishments led by President Bush. I will focus on domestic policy accomplishments.

Each of the following major laws was enacted on a bipartisan vote:

President Bush also reached across party lines to reform immigration law. His bipartisan outreach on this issue was successful, but the legislation failed due to opposition from both wings. In that effort President Bush’s team negotiated with a broad group in the Senate, led by Senator Kennedy on the left and Senator Kyl on the right. President Bush’s attempts deeply split his own party, yet he persisted until it became apparent there was not a 60 vote coalition to succeed.

I imagine some readers are skeptical of the above list so, once again, I’m going to show you some pictures. I’m going to show you a lot of pictures. I want to hammer home the Bush-bipartisan success point. I will then try to draw some lessons for Team Obama.

Let’s begin with the 2001 tax cuts to orient ourselves to the graph format.

  • Dark shading means they voted aye. Light shading means they voted no. So in the top bar in this first graph, 12 Democrats and 46 Republicans voted aye, while 31 Democrats and 2 Republicans voted no.
  • Blue shows Democrats and independents caucusing with Democrats (like Senators Lieberman and Sanders).
  • Red shows Republicans.
  • I left out those who didn’t vote, which explains why many Senate votes don’t total 100, and many House votes don’t total 435.
  • In each case I tallied the vote on final passage.
  • As always, you can click on any graph to see a larger version.

On final passage of the Bush tax cuts of 2001:

  • in the Senate 46 Republicans and 12 Democrats voted aye, while 2 Republicans and 31 Democrats voted no; and
  • in the House 211 Republicans and 28 Democrats voted aye, while 10 Republicans and 154 Democrats voted no.

It should be fairly easy to see that the 2001 tax cuts were enacted by a center-right coalition. Almost all Republicans supported the final product, and about 1 in 4 (Senate) or 1 in 6 (House) Democrats voted aye.

This bill was bipartisan largely because the Bush White House, Senate Majority Leader Lott and Senator Grassley worked closely with Democratic Senators Breaux and Baucus to craft a bill and keep moderate Democratic Senators onboard. We used the reconciliation process, and therefore had 58 votes when we needed only 51 for final passage in the Senate.

You can see that the 2001 tax cuts would not have had even a simple majority in the Senate if Republicans had acted alone. The Senate was split 50-50 at the time.

Now let’s turn to education.

This was a broad bipartisan coalition. President Bush reached out to Senator Kennedy and instructed his team to negotiate directly with Kennedy. You can see the result. This is about as bipartisan as it gets for major legislation.

The Senate was a 51-49 Democratic majority when this bill became law.

Next up, trade.

Trade Promotion Authority, formerly known as fast track, gives the President authority to negotiate trade deals with other countries and have them subject to only an up-or-down vote by Congress, rather than being amended to death. It is essential for Congress to give the President this authority if you’re to have free trade agreements.

Again you can see the center-right coalition that dominates much of American economic policymaking. This has even a little more Democratic support than the 2001 tax cuts, and slightly more opposition from protectionist Republicans. As with the 2001 tax cut, you can see that there are more economic centrist Democrats in the Senate than in the House.

This bill could not have passed either the House or the Senate with only Republican votes. A bipartisan coalition was necessary for legislative success.

This is with a 51-49 Democratic majority in the Senate.

Medicare and Health Savings Accounts are next.

Now we’re back to a Republican majority in the Senate.

Once again, President Bush, his team, and Senator Grassley worked closely with centrist Democratic Senators Baucus and Breaux to negotiate a deal. The final details were hammered out in a fierce negotiation between Baucus/Breaux and Rep. Bill Thomas (R-CA), with extensive White House support.

President Bush held a few meetings at the White House with Baucus, Breaux, and the key Republicans to strengthen the coalition and keep the ball moving forward. This bill created the Medicare drug benefit (which split Republicans) and Health Savings Accounts (which Republicans and conservatives especially like). Democratic leaders opposed this bill, but we managed to hold Democratic moderates anyway.

Once again, the winning majority coalition in both the House and Senate was bipartisan, and the bill could not have become law without Democratic support. A key vote before Senate final passage was a cloture vote, in which some of the 9 Republicans who ultimately voted no supported cloture.

Now we turn to the first major energy law during the Bush tenure.

Senators Bingaman and Baucus were key to this legislative success, which you can see was more bipartisan than some of the prior successes. The legislative process was filled with amendments and negotiations across the partisan aisle and fierce regional conflicts.

Senate Democrats split roughly equally and 75 House Democrats supported final passage. This law focused on electricity (rather than fuel), which sometimes has more of a regional policy focus than a partisan split. This bill originated with VP Cheney’s Energy Task Force, which was labeled by the Left as a dark and evil conspiracy. And yet the final legislation had significant bipartisan support.

Pension reform gets less attention than the others but is important.

I highlight this law because it is easy for pension issues to break down along party lines, with Republicans favoring management interests, Democrats favoring labor interests, and the taxpayer getting shafted. Republican committee chairmen and the Bush Administration reached across party lines to elevate the interests of protecting the pension system, future retirees, and taxpayers, battling against tremendous lobbying pressure from business and labor interest groups to relax the pension rules and allow pension plans to be underfunded.

The law was far from a complete victory for good pension policy, but it was a definite improvement over what preceded. And again, you can see the tremendous breadth of bipartisan support.

Still in President Bush’s tenure, we now shift to Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. The 2007 energy law focused on fuel.

In the 2007 State of the Union Address, President Bush proposed to increase fuel economy standards (CAFE), and to increase the mandated amount of renewable fuels (ethanol) that had to be blended with gasoline. This “energy security” proposal infuriated conservatives – the Wall Street Journal editorial page trashed us for it all year. The President recognized that, with new Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, he would have to build a different legislative coalition than had worked for him when his own party was in the majority.

The final bill was negotiated via an exchange of letters between the Bush White House and Speaker Pelosi. You can see unanimous Democratic support and Republicans deeply split, especially in the House. As with his unsuccessful immigration reform efforts, President Bush was willing to negotiate a compromise with leaders and even wingers from the other party.

Next is the early 2008 stimulus law.

Before announcing his stimulus proposal, President Bush called Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Reid to brief them on it. They urged him to propose a broad outline rather than detailed specifics. President Bush agreed to do so.

President Bush hosted a meeting with the bipartisan / bicameral leaders to discuss the stimulus, similar in composition to the upcoming Blair House meeting. That Cabinet Room meeting was unproductive.

The President then assigned his Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson, to negotiate directly with Speaker Pelosi and Minority Leader Boehner. The three of them negotiated a compromise that followed the President’s outline, and that the President, Speaker, and Minority Leader supported. Almost all Democrats supported the bill, as did most Republicans, but with a significant contingent voting no.

Housing reform legislation was stuck for a long time until Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac started to collapse. Then it suddenly broke free.

Again you can see the results of negotiations between a Republican President and a Democratic-majority House and Senate. The bill had unanimous Democratic support and a fairly serious split on the Republican side.

Finally we have the TARP.

The first version of TARP was negotiated by Secretary Paulson with Democratic and Republican leaders and committee chairmen in an intense and conflict-ridden negotiation. The legislation failed spectacularly on the floor of the House the first time. The President’s team then negotiated by phone with House and Senate leaders of both parties, leading to a few modifications to the original package. The Senate formed a broad center-out coalition to pass the bill easily, which then succeeded the second time around in the House.

You can see broad bipartisan support, as well as significant opposition from both parties. As with the 2007 energy law and the 2008 stimulus, the 2008 TARP was enacted with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, with leaders from the opposite party working out compromises with a Republican President.

Now we turn to the three big domestic policy issues of President Obama’s tenure so far. We begin with the February 2009 stimulus.

Other than three Senate Republicans, the bill was passed and became law on party line votes. There were no negotiations with Congressional Republicans.

Cap-and-trade is next, but only in the House.

Eight House Republicans voted for the bill, providing Speaker Pelosi with her winning margin. A significant block of Democrats voted no.

We end with the health care bills that are the subject of this Thursday’s meeting.

Once again you can see straight partisanship.

Observations and common threads

Senate Republicans peaked at 56 votes during Bush’s tenure.

President Bush used reconciliation twice three times: once in 2001 for the bipartisan tax cuts, once in 2003 for the partisan tax cuts (not shown), and once in 2005 to cut spending.

In all other cases he had to deal with potential filibusters, occasionally from both sides of the aisle.

In Republican majority Congresses, the winning margin was often provided by Democrats, especially in the Senate.

There are at least four different versions of a bipartisan vote:

  • Unifying your own party (or nearly so) and picking off a moderate block from the minority: tax cuts, TPA, Medicare/HSAs. You do this by trying to split the other side’s moderates from their party leaders.
  • Picking up the majority of the other party, at the cost of a losing a significant block from your own side: 2005 energy, TARP. You do this by negotiating with the other party’s leaders.
  • Working with the majority of the other party and getting all of their side while your own side splits deeply: 2007 energy, 2008 stimulus, housing. You do this by negotiating with the other party’s leaders when they’re in the majority.
  • Near consensus: No Child Left Behind, Pension Protection Act (in the Senate). You do this by negotiating with everyone. Miracles occasionally happen.

Why did Bush succeed at enacting bipartisan legislation?

I assume that some on the Left will say the Republican minority is now far more unified, partisan, and obstinate than the Democratic minority ever was. I think this is silly. Whatever you think of Republicans, they’re not that unified. I’m reminded of the organized crime boss in the movie Sneakers: “Don’t kid yourself. It’s not that organized.”

I believe there are six keys to President Bush’s bipartisan legislative successes:

  1. He sometimes reached out to Congressional Democrats and negotiated directly with them, even at the expense of upsetting his Congressional Republican allies.
  2. He knew how to count votes, and when not to rely on a razor-thin partisan margin for victory.
  3. He knew how to nurture existing bipartisan discussions and alliances in Congress and turn them to his own advantage.
  4. He was willing to preemptively split his own party when necessary to get a deal.
  5. He knew when and how to split the other party, negotiating with Democrats who were potential supporters of a compromise and isolating those who would oppose a deal no matter what.
  6. He and his allies generally stuck with a traditional legislative process, which builds credibility and makes members feel they are getting their fair shot, even if they lose a vote.

President Obama needs to learn each of these lessons if he wants to succeed as President Bush did.

  • President Obama explains that his proposals include {modified versions of) Republican ideas. That’s not how you bring the other party on board. You can end up at the same place by bringing members of the other party into the room and negotiating with them. Then they (in this case, Republicans) have ownership of the compromises and are more likely to support the final product. The way you get someone to agree is by bringing him into the room and negotiating with him (or her). Make the other guy feel like he got a win.
  • For a year he tried to enact legislation by relying on a universe of 60 votes from which he needed 60. That’s nearly impossible to do on any important issue, especially when you simultaneously provoke the other 40 to stand firm by shutting them out.
  • On health care he undercut Senate Finance Committee Chairman Baucus, whose bipartisan “Gang of Six” had the best chance to negotiate the core of a bipartisan compromise. Recently Leader Reid blew up a Baucus-Grassley deal on the jobs bill, further poisoning the water for any potential future bipartisan efforts. No Senate Republican can now have confidence that any Democratic committee chairman has the authority to negotiate a binding deal. Why should Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham enter into bipartisan cap-and-trade negotiations after he saw what Reid did to Baucus-Grassley?
  • President Bush alienated a significant share of his own party when he announced his 2007 energy proposal, his 2008 stimulus proposal, immigration reform, and the TARP. On cap-and-trade and especially health care, President Obama has instead tried to hold onto his left wing as long as he possibly could, making the inevitable break even more painful and losing the ability to demonstrate to Republicans that he is willing to make hard choices in his own party to bring Republicans onboard.
  • Bipartisan doesn’t always mean negotiating with the leaders of the party. You have to know when to negotiate with the opposition leaders, when to negotiate with a winger from the other party (e.g., Bush-Kennedy on education, or Bush-Kennedy-Kyl on immigration), and when to try to pick off a few moderates from the other party to squeak out your margin of victory. Other than Speaker Pelosi picking off eight House Republicans for cap-and-trade, Team Obama and Congressional Democrats have failed with each of these tactics. But have they actually tried?
  • The traditional legislative process creates legitimacy within the halls of Congress. Committee markups, bipartisan negotiations, open amendment processes, and traditional open conferences are processes that create predictability, order, and a sense of fair play. It is much easier to cultivate members of the minority party when they perceive you are playing by the rules. Team Obama and their allies repeatedly try to bypass the rules, creating new substantive products behind closed doors and relying upon nontraditional legislative processes. This undermines both public confidence and the minority’s willingness to play ball. If Senator Reid were to allow floor amendments to be offered to major legislation, even amendments he might lose, he might not face quite so many filibusters and failed cloture votes.

If President Obama wants bipartisan legislative success, he could learn a few things from his predecessor.

(photo credit: Official White House photo by Eric Draper)

51 thoughts on “What can President Obama learn from President Bush’s bipartisan successes?

  1. Sneedle Flipsock

    It is my fervent prayer that Obama fails to learn from Bush's Bipartisan successes.

    It is my strongly held belief that he can not learn.

  2. Ali A. Rizvi

    One big difference. Trying to get bipartisanship going with the Republicans is very different to doing it with the Democrats.

    This post doesn't just prove that Bush was open to bipartisanship. It proves that the Democrats were open to it and willing to work with him. If they hadn't been, they would have been the party of 'no' just as the Republicans are today.

    Repubs wanted televised negotiations and they wanted their ideas to be out there. Let's see how it goes at the summit. Obama's offered to put their health care plan on the White House website. I doubt there will be one. Why?

    Because the days of Ronald Reagan are over. The difference between the parties now is not one of ideology, but of intellect. The New Republicans (with few exceptions, like Paul Ryan) are incapable of new ideas not just because they're ideologically challenged (conservative ideology is still respectable), but because they're intellectually challenged: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ali-a-rizvi/the-new

    1. RBIII

      Still going with that debunked "The GOP doesn't have a plan" talking point huh?

      The Republican plan is linked FROM THE WHITE HOUSE WEBSITE.

      1. timnlisa1

        Debunked? For Real? Go to the GOP Senate site at that White house link.. They will give everyone everything at no cost to anyone. That isn't a policy, it's a joke. And the House plan will insure 3 M extra people over the next 10 years according to CBO analysis (compared to the Dems 35 M extra people).

        The GOP has no plan that does anything other than small stuff at the margins. Get a clue.

      2. RBIII

        OH, I see. They have a plan but it isn't a plan because YOU and your Statist buddies don't consider it a plan.

        Thanks for admitting they have a plan, though.

  3. Carl Hardwick

    "Republican can now have confidence that any Democratic committee chairman has the authority to negotiate a binding deal. "

    Small typos on the 3rd bullet on what Obama should do, you probably meant to type "Republican(s) [delete] (can) [/delete] now have (no) confidence….".

    1. Jeff

      You need to read the bullet point again Carl… It states "No Senate Republican can now have confidence that any Democratic committee chairman has the authority to negotiate a binding deal." And truer words are hard to find right now!! Reid & Pelosi need to be replaced with less arrogant, more open minded(read centrist) individuals with "people skills" that can show more negotiating skills also.

      Some of that arrogance can be laid at Bush's feet though… He allowed/negotiated away power to these two and their heads swelled with it. You saw this at the beginning of Obama's tenure when Pelosi made several comments not in line with Obama's thoughts. Of course all three are so thin-skinned, it boggles the mind to try to figure out how they got where they are!!

  4. John

    "Obama's offered to put their health care plan on the White House website. I doubt there will be one. Why? "

    The GOP health care plan has been available at healthcare.gop.gov for almost six months. If the whitehouse wanted to link to it, they could have simply linked to it.

    Instead, the white house is relying on misinformed, lazy, non-intellectual sycophants to simply buy their propaganda that the GOP doesn't have a plan. The President's ability to fool and deceive his own supporters is what has given him the arrogance to continue to do it over, and over, and over. Can you still count on one hand all the promises to left-wingers he has broken? I doubt it.

  5. sbowers3

    On occasion the 'stupid party' and the 'evil party' come together to do something that is truly 'stupid and evil' and that we call 'bi-partisanship'.

  6. Bill

    There is no lesson here. There is a red herring, namely "Conventional wisdom says the tenure of President George W. Bush was dominated by partisanship," that has nothing to do with the current obstruction by the republican party.

    I've come to expect more from you Mr. Hennessey. If I want to read mindless partisanship that has no relationship with reality I can always hop on over to the FoxNews website.

    1. Cybrludite

      Mind explaining how failure to get things passed is the Republicans' fault when the Democrats had a filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate and still have a solid majority in the House? As some commentator or another put it, the Republicans could have stayed home for all the influence they had on the process.

      1. Bill

        The Democrats never really had a filibuster proof supermajority. They had 58 democrats with Lieberman as a very unreliable independent.

        The republicans have used the filibuster at an unprecedented rate. They have used the filibuster on bills that several of their members support. They have even used on bills sponsored by republican members. They have blocked scores of non controversial appointments just to block them. That is obstruction. If the democrats were to do the same thing, republicans would be screaming bloody murder.

      2. Chuckles

        But the Republicans wouldn't be using the filibuster against leglisation that they favor. That's the point. If you want bipartisan votes, you need to put substance on the table that some people across the aisle actually like.

        On pensions, immigration, education, energy policy, taxes and many other issues, President Bush was willing to be guided by policies that would appeal not only to him but also to sufficient numbers of both D's and R's.

        Right now federal spending is at historic high as a % of GDP, and even the government's current health care commitments are unsustainable going forward. Propose to increase those commitments by nearly a trillion over ten years, and more thereafter, and you won't find many R's willing to vote for it.

        Put out a policy that R's find as objectionable as D's find alluring, then of course you'll get party-line votes. If that's the goal, fine, but then don't complain about it.

      3. Chuckles

        Just to follow up on his point. D's didn't cooperate on various Bush policy initiatives out of generosity. They did it because they liked the substance of the legislation being worked on.

        Where D's strongly disagreed they fought. They fought on Social Security; they fought on various judicial appointments. They were loudly critical of decisions with respect to Iraq.

        As Hennessey says, it's silly to say that vote totals respect some intransigence that is unique only to one party. When President Obama announced his Afghanistan policy, you had more R's than D's stating support for it. Both parties vote for things they favor, and againt things they oppose. If you want R votes, guess what: you need substance in which R's are invested. It's not that hard.

    2. Kevin

      I guess you refuse to acknowledge how you win large majorities in Congress for Presidential priorities at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century. By the way that is how Bill Clinton operated after 1994 welfare reform bill and balanced budget legislation in 1997. Also this is how Presidents Nixon and Johnson operated when necessary

      Also President Obama is getting what he wants he does not need Republican votes for his priorities prior to February 2010. I am not sure now what he wants. One thing I can say is that President Obama is substantially less involved in legislative log rolling than his predecessors. I guess he lacks his inner Lyndon Johnson

  7. Dick Hertz

    Grover Norquist defined bipartisanship as date rape, presumably with his side the perpetrator.
    What I see here is not necessarily the result of Bush reaching out to a liberal party, but rather a party that was effectively neutered and shut out for quite a while and desperate for some funding wins after selling out their base repeatedly over the previous decades. While the GOP seems to have less party discipline than it did under the Hammer, they still don't cross over too much. While the Democrats are arguable to the right of Reagan on most issues today, the GOP has a branch that actively is seeking to name and shame people who aren't "right" enough, from positions that Goldwater would have made stinkeye at.

  8. Justin

    How on earth did Obama undercut the Baucus Gang of 6? He let that charade going on for months and months, resulting in only Olympia Snowe coming on board. Later, these same clowns turned around and said the individual mandate was unconstitutional, when one of them voted for it in the Finance Committee, and Grassley said he supported that provision last spring. The only conclusion that can be determined is that Republicans fundamentally disagree with the concept of Health Care Reform and that they are not bargaining in good faith.

    There is and was nothing the Democrats could have done to get Republicans to sign on to a Health Care Bill. Tort Reform or anything else won't do it.

    1. SteveinCH


      The Republicans wanted an assurance from the administration that they would fight for the outcome of the gang of six negotiation or that Baucus had authority to negotiate on behalf of the administration. When the administration would agree to neither approach, they undercut the negotiation. From the Republican point of view, why negotiate with Baucus when the bill would just be changed on the floor or in conference.

      Same issue on the jobs bill. There was a bipartisan negotiation but Harry Reid didn't like the outcome so he changed it. That's the point I suspect Keith is making.

  9. Brooks

    Re the "accomplishments" of the 2001 tax cut and 2003 Medicare Part D, is the lesson there that both parties can come together on really, really fiscally irresponsible stuff, as long as deficits aren't huge and/or it's an unfunded give-away to seniors?

  10. dave

    great post.

    most of the laws, though, have been understood as failures. no child left behind? it's now hated on a bi-partisan basis.

    also, you forgot the aumf. that was bipartisan too. and all these wars have failed. bipartisanship: a recipe for failure.

  11. Bill

    There is no lesson here. There is a red herring, namely "Conventional wisdom says the tenure of President George W. Bush was dominated by partisanship," that has nothing to do with the current obstruction by the republican party.

    I've come to expect more from you Mr. Hennessey. If I want to read mindless partisanship that has no relationship with reality I can always hop on over to the FoxNews website.

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  14. EDW

    Where is McCain-Feingold!
    You know—where Bush & McCain joined liberals hand in hand and eliminated the right of citizens to pool their money in order to convey an election-affect political message?

    Liberals should love Bush & McCain's support of ending the 1st Amendment—that is step number one on the agenda of all "intelligent" progressives!

  15. LapsedEconomist

    A lot of Bush policy achievements was at the expense of what his party believed in. Paradoxically, on social issues, Bush is a Keynesian believer, and is left of his party. Bush believes in government social engineering a lot more than libertarians or right wingers can normally tolerate. But because he is a republican, many just kept their misgivings to themselves even as alarm bells should have gone off. Funny that Bush is the most socially liberal republican president we've seen in a long time. Bush was not a true centrist when it comes to fiscal or social policies (other than religious ones). His education and medicare/medicaid spendings were extremely high.

  16. LapsedEconomist

    What Obama managed to do was go so far to pander to the wingnuts in the socialist groupthink of his party that he even made GWB's fiscal irresponsible spendings look right wing. That was pretty much why everybody took notice and rebelled.

    When Obama's team realized that they've been listening to too many wingnuts (was it Rahm that told his boss the lunatic fringe was making him look marxist) and tried to put some daylight in between by doing more moderate things (public option gone from HC), the lunatics turned on him and act betrayed.

    Regardless, based on his continuous policy initiatives,. Obama likely fundamentally believes that government spending is equal (or even! superior!) to private investments to an extent that is left of even Keynes himself). On this he is wrong — the aggregate demand equation is not a simple matter of adding independent factors, the factors themselves are interrelated, and because Obama doesn't realize that his understanding of economic principles is wrong, he and his team continues to speak slower, using smaller words in the hope that the good people will eventually understand and agree with them.

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