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WBFO brings you NPR's live coverage of the Republican National Convention tonight from 9pm-11pm.

Can Bush Now Fulfill His 'Uniter' Pledge?

U.S. President George W. Bush waves while boarding Marine One for a weekend retreat to Camp David, Jan. 20, 2007
Mandel Ngan
AFP/Getty Images
U.S. President George W. Bush waves while boarding Marine One for a weekend retreat to Camp David, Jan. 20, 2007

Ask President Bush how he can work with a newly Democratic Congress and he has a ready answer.

"I was the governor of Texas with Democrat leadership in the House and the Senate, and we were able to get a lot of constructive things done for the state of Texas," the president has said. "And I believe it's going to be possible here — to do so here in the country."

Gov. Bush did have close relationships with Democrats. In fact, on the night he officially became President-elect, it was the Democratic speaker of the Texas House, Pete Laney, who introduced him at the statehouse with warm words.

Today, Laney is retired and living back in his old district near the Texas panhandle. He recalls how he and Gov. Bush often found common ground on issues ranging from education, to juvenile justice, to tort reform.

"He would not be bashful about going down to members' offices and meeting with members in their office, be that Democrat or Republican," Laney says.

In Bush's acceptance speech at the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia, he made it a point to mention another Democrat: Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, who had died the previous year.

"Bob was a Democrat, a crusty veteran of Texas politics, and my great friend," Bush had said.

Journalist Ken Herman covered Gov. Bush as a reporter for the Austin-American Statesman newspaper. He says the governor put on a charm offensive aimed at winning Bullock over.

"And it worked," Herman says. "Bullock thought the world of Bush. Bullock was among the first to say 'This boy ought to be president someday.' And he was a Dem who endorsed Gov. Bush for re-election in 1998 over a Democratic candidate whose children were Bob Bullock's godchildren. So this was a big deal."

But Herman, who now covers the White House for Cox newspapers, also notes that Republican Gov. Bush had few differences with the conservative Democrats who ran Austin at the time. Nor was there that much responsibility resting on the governor. In Texas, the office is relatively weak.

"There's an old joke about the governor of Texas and his three constitutional duties," says former speaker Laney. "One of them is to make appointments which the Senate can bust; veto legislation with the Legislature can override; and call special sessions and we don't have to show up. So it was very imperative that the governor work with the legislative process."

Gov. Bush did just that, creating a narrative of success for his run for the White House. His campaign ads in 2000 focused on his ability to be a "uniter, not a divider."

In his earliest White House days, President Bush showed signs of charming key Democrats as he had in Texas. He wooed Sen. Edward Kennedy, at one point, inviting him into the Oval Office to show him the desk he was using — the same one used by the senator's brother, John.

"I noticed people referring to this as the 'Hug a Democrat a Day' administration," said Press Secretary Ari Fleischer in February 2001, when a large number of Democrats were visiting the White House for meetings and social events. "I think if you recall, I reminded people the president also has friends who aren't Democrats."

It was a nice mood, but it didn't last.

In 2001, the White House won over enough Democrats to push new public-education standards through Congress, as well as huge tax cuts.

After Sept. 11, 2001, the whole Congress united behind the president. But in 2002, White House campaigned aggressively against targeted democrats, suggesting that some didn't care about fighting terrorism.

In 2003, as the war in Iraq dragged on and no weapons of mass destruction were found, the relationship deteriorated further.

Soon, even Democrats who had been friendly were calling the education programs flawed and the tax cuts too generous to the rich. And as Iraq grew more chaotic, Democrats turned on the administration in fury. By late 2006, the two parties were as far apart as ever. Polls showed that the public viewed President Bush as a divider, not a uniter.

Mr. Bush says he can work with Democrats as he has in the past, but he's a long way from Texas.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Don Gonyea
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.