French Lessons for Bush

By E. J. Dionne Jr. (THE WASHINGTON POST, 01/07/07):

Nicolas Sarkozy was a divisive figure during his campaign for the French presidency. But he’s governing as a uniter, not a divider.

George W. Bush ran for president in 2000 promising to ease partisan divisions. He has left our politics a wreck of recrimination, anger and polarization.

This weekend, the contrast between Sarkozy and Bush could not have been more conspicuous.

From France came word that the center-right president was urging the International Monetary Fund to name Dominique Strauss-Kahn as its managing director.

There is no exact American metaphor, but imagine if Bush had pushed for a prominent liberal Democrat — Al Gore or John Kerry, perhaps — to head the World Bank. Imagine further that the president had seriously consulted with his political adversaries.

Strauss-Kahn, a former finance minister, is one of the most talented figures in France’s opposition Socialist Party and would be a major force in any reconstruction of the center-left.

Sarkozy brushed off Strauss-Kahn’s political affiliation. “Should I deprive France of his candidacy because he is a Socialist?” he was quoted as saying. “How could I be the president of all the French if I reasoned like that?”

Cynics say that Sarkozy is trying to weaken the opposition by co-opting some of its best leaders. (He appointed a Socialist as foreign minister.) François Hollande, the first secretary of the Socialist Party, said Sunday that Sarkozy is always looking for a new “maneuver” and wondered whether his interest in the Strauss-Kahn appointment was primarily about domestic politics.

Hollande is right to be skeptical — of course there’s political benefit to Sarkozy in what he’s doing. But seen from the perspective of a sullen, immobilized Washington, Sarkozy’s strategy of reaching out is inspirational.

And what of Bush? He chose the post-July 4 weekend to give one of his cheapest, most partisan weekly radio addresses. “Democrats are failing in their responsibility to make tough decisions and spend the people’s money wisely,” Bush said. “This moment is a test.”

Those are hollow words from a president who squandered a huge budget surplus. He didn’t seem to mind when the Republican-led Congress let earmarks go wild and couldn’t even get its budget work done last year. Yet here was Bush, accusing Democrats of embracing “the failed tax-and-spend policies of the past,” thus embracing the past’s most dreary rhetoric.

And White House spokesman Tony Fratto piled on by blaming the Democratic-controlled Congress for the death of the immigration bill. “We saw this with immigration, and we’re seeing it with some other issues, where Congress is having an inability to take on major challenges,” Fratto said.

Fratto did not mention that three-quarters of the senators from Bush’s own party voted to block his immigration bill, while more than two-thirds of the Democrats voted to allow it to move forward. Whose “inability” was that?

Bush will be president until Jan. 20, 2009. Are we doomed to 18 months of drift? Instead of sounding like a Republican political consultant, Bush might try to sound like a president who understands that power in Washington — and opinion in the country — shifted after the 2006 elections.

The president’s best interest, and the nation’s, would be better served if Bush heeded Sen. Richard Lugar’s call for a new bipartisan approach to Iraq, as some White House advisers are reportedly considering. And instead of offering campaign-trail rhetoric on budget issues, the president could negotiate seriously with Congress. He may still have enough power to fight the Democrats to a standstill and drag their popularity down. But where would that leave us 18 months from now?

“I’ve learned you cannot lead by dividing people,” a presidential hopeful said in a June 12, 1999, speech in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, announcing his candidacy. “This country is hungry for a new style of campaign. Positive. Hopeful. Inclusive. A campaign that attracts new faces and new voices. A campaign that unites all Americans toward a better tomorrow.”

Forget impeachment. Given how Bush has governed for most of his presidency, can one of those trial lawyers he loathes sue him for product misrepresentation?

I suppose Bush’s lawyers would defend him by saying that in 1999 he was talking only about his campaign, not how he’d govern. Still, Sarkozy, the most pro-American French president in a long time, seems to have taken Bush’s earlier words to heart. The 2007 Bush might usefully sit down with Sarkozy over a nice plate of freedom fries to figure out how to do it himself.