The double-edged sword of bi-partisanship

When President Bush squares off with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this year, don’t be surprised if Mr. Conservative Republican steps left and Mrs. Liberal Democrat steps right, and the two wind up holding hands at more than one bill-signing ceremony.

Sure, there may be plenty of unfriendly investigations and vetoes littering the way, but the politics of a lame-duck president and a tightly constrained opposition Congress could make for some eyebrow-raising nuptials.

Recent discussions in the Oval Office have taken some surprising turns, say Democrats who have visited Bush there since the election.

“He’s all into switch grass,” said Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., who co-chairs the moderate New Democrat coalition, describing Bush’s fresh fascination with alternative fuels. Tauscher said Bush pointed out that he was the first president to acknowledge America’s “addiction to oil” and seemed “very engaged and wants to move forward” on a new approach to energy.

Facing a Democratic-controlled House and Senate for the first time in his presidency, an unpopular war, and wholesale desertions within a Republican Party already looking past him to 2008, Bush stands at the bleakest point of his tenure at the White House. But analysts say he can find solace in history, which warns foes never to underestimate even the most down-and-out president.

Republican Ronald Reagan was mired in the Iran-Contra scandal and had lost control of the Senate at the same point in his second term. The arch enemy of the Soviet Union and architect of a massive military buildup went on to sign a historic nuclear disarmament treaty with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Democrat Bill Clinton defended his relevance after Democrats lost the House and Senate in 1994 following the collapse of his ambitious effort to remake the U.S. health care system. He went on to win a second term by stealing Republican thunder on issues such as balancing the budget and reforming welfare.

Bush aides are studying these models as they look to the last two years of his presidency. Energy and immigration present obvious areas of common ground between the Republican president and Democratic Congress.

Iraq, however, is the albatross of the Bush presidency that neither Clinton nor Reagan faced. Bush is a lame duck and unless there is a major turnaround in Iraq, the war will follow Bush through the rest of his presidency, promising to overshadow everything else.

All the more reason to try to work with Democrats where he can, experts said.

“Bush really needs to consider trying to shake things up and identify a major issue in which he can engage the Democrats and the public on,” said former Clinton aide Chris Lehane, who later served as Vice President Al Gore’s press secretary during the 2000 presidential campaign against Bush. “He needs to do his version of Nixon going to China — or borrow from (California Gov.) Arnold (Schwarzenegger’s) comeback play book — and that would be offering a bold, smart energy proposal that would address security issues in the Middle East, global warming and energy independence.”

Frank Donatelli, a former Reagan political aide, said Bush should seek “floating coalitions” wherever he can find common ground with Democrats, combined with a vigorous use of the veto to maintain his leverage and relevance. Bush has vetoed just one bill in his presidency, a feat last achieved by Thomas Jefferson.

“You want to try to be on the offensive as much as possible,” Donatelli said. “The longer you remain relevant on Capitol Hill, the longer you’ll remain relevant in the public debate and with the American people generally.”

Bush has already signaled that he might accept an increase in the minimum wage, which Democrats intend to pass in their first 100 hours in control. He has also told Democrats that he wants to work with them on immigration, where his more welcoming approach has always been more in sync with Democrats than with his own party. He has volunteered his interest in biofuels.

Such bipartisan moves “would basically take the steam away from the Democratic Party, so that in 2008 the Democrats just don’t have that same fire against George Bush to run with,” said Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Boston University. “That’s the advantage of divided government and bipartisan deals. It can kill some of the Democratic energy very effectively, and even a conservative understands that.”