- The Washington Times - Monday, November 15, 2004

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Whatever history says about George W. Bush, it won’t say he was a weak president. His conduct of what he regards as the war on terror has been, for good or ill, a chronicle of audacity — toppling the Taliban, deposing Saddam Hussein, defying international law in the detention of al Qaeda captives at Guantanamo Bay, holding American “enemy combatants” without trial, and more.

Yet in one major way, he has verged on timidity. In his entire first term, he hasn’t used a power that most presidents have regarded as indispensable: the veto.

It’s the equivalent of Barbra Streisand refusing to sing show tunes, or Donald Trump giving away all his worldly possessions. Why unilaterally relinquish your biggest asset?

Bush himself once joked that for the president, “a dictatorship would be a heck of a lot easier, there’s no question about that.” He may not have noticed that the veto is the closest a president gets to dictatorial powers: If he says no, it doesn’t matter that 289 House members and 66 senators really, really want something.

Congress can always override him, but that’s usually an idle threat. Since the founding of the Republic, reports the Congressional Research Service, presidents have vetoed 1,484 bills. Only 106 of those became law through a congressional override — which means that 93 percent of the time, the president gets his way. I doubt Stalin got his way 93 percent of the time.

The veto is such a powerful weapon that the founding fathers were leery of it. To assuage those fears, Alexander Hamilton noted that even the British king was reluctant to wield his veto — it had gone unused since 1707 — and insisted that an elected executive would be even less assertive. “There would be greater danger of his not using his power when necessary, than of his using it too often,” he predicted.

For a long time, he was right. George Washington vetoed only two bills, while John Adams and Thomas Jefferson vetoed none. Of the first 14 presidents, half of them never issued a veto. Even Abraham Lincoln, who is often accused of stretching the powers of the office, recorded only two vetoes.

But presidents eventually figured out that either they could curb Congress with this instrument, or they could get steamrolled. Grover Cleveland vetoed 304 bills in his first term, or one every five days. A fiscally frugal Democrat, he balked whenever he thought lawmakers were overstepping their authority or exceeding the nation’s means. In rejecting a tiny $10,000 appropriation to buy seed for drought-stricken Texas farmers, Cleveland declared, “Though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.”

Bush’s performance confirms Cleveland’s fear that an unchecked Congress is an irresponsible and spendthrift Congress. In the last four years, federal outlays have risen by 20 percent, after adjustments for inflation. And we can’t excuse the increase as a product of urgent military needs. Non-defense spending has actually risen faster than defense spending.

Though Bush sometimes grumbles, he always succumbs in the end. He was critical of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, but when Congress sent it to him, he gritted his teeth and signed, despite what he called “serious constitutional concerns.” If serious constitutional concerns aren’t cause for a veto, what is?

Certainly not mere money. Though his budget director occasionally threatened a presidential veto when spending bills expanded beyond belief, it always turned out to be a bluff. If Congress sent Bush a takeout menu, he might sign it.

Even some pro-Bush conservatives fault him for being so agreeable. “He doesn’t like confrontation with Congress,” complains Stephen Moore, president of the Reaganesque Club for Growth. “He wanted a warm and fuzzy relationship.” But that approach has been self-defeating, says Moore: “Powerful presidents and successful ones tend to make very good use of the veto.”

Bush may think it’s unseemly to wield this weapon against a Congress controlled by his own party. Tell that to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who issued 372 vetoes, even though Democrats owned Capitol Hill for his entire time in office.

It may be unpleasant for Bush to battle his fellow Republicans, but it would be even more unpleasant for them to take him on. In the face of a veto, most GOP members would back down rather than risk the everlasting wrath of Karl Rove.

Bush understands that you don’t negotiate with your enemies by asking nicely and letting them know you’d never use your best weapons against them. Guess what: That approach doesn’t work with friends, either.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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