The Emperor Has No Vetoes
Why is the Imperial President stripping the presidency of its greatest power?
Thursday, Feb. 23, 2006
Gun Shy: For five years, the Bush administration has been boasting about its determination to restore the lost powers of the presidency. Whenever the White House makes a mistake or has something to hide, Vice President Cheney gives a civics lecture about the good old days, when men were men, secrets were secret, and a president's home was his castle.
There have always been a million little holes in this fable. Reagan and Clinton strengthened the presidency by standing up to Congress; Nixon, the last imperial president, nearly destroyed the institution with his penchant for intrigue and secrecy. If Bush and Cheney really wanted to bolster the powers of the commander in chief, they might try winning broader support from America's real political boss, the electorate.
Yet the biggest hole in the empire builders' myth is in plain view this week. On Tuesday, Bush brought out the most powerful weapon in the presidential arsenal—the veto threat—to defend the sale of U.S. ports to a Dubai firm. By Wednesday, the White House was already negotiating the terms of presidential surrender.
The list of Republicans who have distanced themselves from the deal grew so long so quickly that the White House is now trying to distance the president as well, saying he only learned about the sale after its approval. The administration and congressional leaders will stall for time and look for a face-saving compromise to avoid the embarrassment of making President Bush's first veto his first veto to be overridden.
The Dubai debacle shows that for all this administration's chest-beating about restoring energy in the executive over the past five years, it has systematically avoided the most important presidential power of all, the veto. Like most powers in the illusory world of politics, the veto is use-it-or-lose-it. Because Bush hasn't mustered the strength to use that power a single time in his presidency, even the meekest Congress in memory no longer fears it.
This time, the White House has left the president out there by himself, exposed. Far from strengthening the office, Bush's Imperial Presidency turns out to be a fraud: The Emperor has no vetoes.
Yes I Said Yes I Will Yes: The country has already paid a heavy price because Bush never met a bill he wouldn't sign. The president can't simply blame Congress or 9/11 for the greatest domestic spending binge since LBJ. Every cut Bush proposes in his budget is dead on arrival because he always goes along with every appropriations bill. In Washington, everyone gives speeches about fiscal discipline; only the president has the power to enforce it. In spending parlance, "no" means "yes"; the only word that means "no" is "veto."
When it comes to vetoes, Bush isn't in the same league with other presidents. No president since Warren Harding has finished with fewer than 21 vetoes. The last president with no vetoes was James Garfield, who was shot in his first year. In fact, three of the last four presidents who never vetoed a bill had a good excuse: Like Harding, they died in office: Garfield, Zachary Taylor, and William Henry Harrison. (The fourth was Taylor's successor Millard Fillmore.)
There's no excuse for Bush letting the veto power die in office. On the rare occasions when he offers a veto threat, he has chosen battles that make him look weak, not strong. For example, he threatened to veto any attempt by Congress to let Medicare negotiate prices with drugmakers. That hollow threat just gave Republicans in Congress an excuse not to do what they weren't going to do anyway.
Bruce Reed, who was President Clinton's domestic policy adviser, is CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council and co-author with Rahm Emanuel of The Plan: Big Ideas for Change in America.E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his disclosure here.
Photograph of Barack Obama by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.