When most people don't like the rules of a particular game, they either complain that the rules are unfair or they quit the game altogether. Not President Bush. He just changes the rules.
Consider a few recent examples. Bush and White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer didn't like some of the recent questions and comments coming from veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas. (She's called Bush "the worst president in all of American history.") As the dean of the White House press corps, Thomas, by tradition, gets to ask the first question at each press conference. But at his recent press conference on Iraq, Bush ignored Thomas completely, thus violating an unwritten rule that had been followed by every recent president, including his father.
Then there's the tussle over judicial nominee Miguel Estrada. Bush doesn't like the fact that Democratic senators are filibustering Estrada's nomination. So he suggested changing the rules to "ensure timely up-or-down votes on judicial nominations both now and in the future, no matter who is the president or what party controls the Senate." According to the Senate's Web site, filibusters have been around since the early days of Congress and have been popular since the 1850s. It's hard to remember the last time a president suggested that the Senate change one of its oldest traditions. There have been plenty of presidents who haven't liked congressional rules, but that doesn't mean they've suggested changing them just to accomplish one goal.
Both examples show that Bush has little respect for either the press or for Congress. He sees both as obstacles that can get in the way of his agenda, and he doesn't like the checks-and-balances role that each plays (in terms of popular opinion or government). Fortunately there are ways of working around Bush -- at least on these issues. Often the best White House journalism doesn't come from talking to the president's advisers -- especially in this tightly controlled administration, where they usually just repeat the same spin Fleischer gives out at his morning meetings and afternoon press conferences. Journalists can (and should) talk to lawmakers, pollsters, lobbyists and others in the know. They are, after all, reporters, and they shouldn't be stymied by an obstinate administration. And it's not as if the Senate is likely to change its procedures anytime soon, no matter how much Bush doesn't like them. Congress is too proud an institution to cave so quickly to a president, even when he's of the same party as the majority of its members.
Unfortunately, things aren't as simple on the international stage. At first, like other presidents before him, including his own father, Bush tried to persuade the United Nations Security Council nations to go along with him on Iraq, and he got agreement on a resolution last fall. But when he went back to them again and they weren't so cooperative, he decided he could just ignore them. So instead of working with a full-fledged coalition, we now find ourselves enjoying the support of only a handful of other countries. By his actions, Bush has cast aside years of diplomatic procedures, which could have ramifications for decades to come. And by launching an unprovoked war against another country for the first time in American history, he is about to rewrite the rules of U.S. foreign policy.
Bush's business background may be partly to blame for his actions. Executives often think they can just change the system or fudge the numbers if things don't add up the way they're supposed to. (Remember Enron?) But if such behavior can be dangerous for a company and its stockholders, it's much more so for a country and its citizens. Bush's rule changing has already alienated the United States from much of the rest of the world. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, almost all countries expressed solidarity with the United States. Now they're burning Bush in effigy, and the future of NATO and the United Nations is seriously in question.
On Sunday's Meet the Press, host Tim Russert unearthed a comment Vice President Dick Cheney made during the 2000 campaign on why other countries were glad we didn't remove Saddam Hussein from power in 1991. Said Cheney: "They were concerned that we not get into a position where we shifted, instead of being the leader of an international coalition to roll back Iraqi aggression, to one in which we were an imperialist power, willy-nilly moving into capitals in that part of the world, taking down governments."
Yet that's exactly what we're about to do now. It's scary when a president thinks he knows better than everyone else -- the press, the Congress, other nations -- how to do things. The reason the Founding Fathers didn't give the president total control was because they knew how badly things could go wrong. Bush has changed the rules of the game once again -- and the world is about to suffer the consequences.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is a Prospect senior editor.