March 9, 2006
Bush's Friend Rubin
WASHINGTON -- It was harsh enough when former Treasury Secretary
Robert Rubin last weekend called on fellow Democrats to reject
President Bush's proposed bipartisan commission on curbing runaway
entitlements. It was all the more stinging because six weeks earlier,
at a private White House dinner, Bush had made a personal appeal
for Rubin's help on the project.
On Jan. 23, the president
pulled Bill Clinton's secretary of the Treasury aside to make
an extended plea that they work together on his commission to
find ways to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid costs.
Rubin's public answer came in a Bloomberg Television interview,
broadcast March 4, when he urged Democratic non-cooperation with
Bush's commission. Instead, he said, Democratic leaders in Congress
should demand that the president join them in a "fiscal commission"
that would clearly be aimed at rolling back Bush's tax cuts.
Rubin's slap in the
face raises questions about how much Bush really has learned about
Washington in over five years. He still seems to confuse intensely
partisan liberal Democrats like Bob Rubin with the late Bob Bullock,
the centrist Democratic lieutenant governor with whom Bush collaborated
as governor of Texas. Bush also seems dedicated to using the bipartisan
commission, despite the miserable failure of his panels dealing
with Social Security and tax reform.
Although he is the
target of relentless assaults from Democrats, Bush dreams of replicating
in chilly Washington the warmer political climate of Austin. He
also may be intrigued by returning to the bipartisan establishment
that long ago held sway in the nation's capital. A 21st-century
establishment seemed represented Jan. 23 at a White House dinner
honoring Alan Greenspan's retirement as Federal Reserve chairman.
Rubbing elbows with Bush administration senior officials were
such exalted Democrats as Lawrence Summers, Vernon Jordan and
Bush appears ill
at ease in such surroundings, giving the impression he would rather
be at his Texas ranch. Many of the 40 or so invited guests expected
an evening of tributes, but all they got was Bush's pre-dinner
remarks. The early-to-bed president rose after the meal, indicating
the evening had ended well before 10 p.m.
But it was not quite
over. Bush made a beeline for Rubin. As the other guests stared,
Bush and Rubin stood facing each other and engaged in conversation
for fully 10 minutes. The observers were not let in on the secret,
but sources who talked to Rubin say the president asked him to
cooperate on the entitlement reform commission.
For Bush to make
a third try at a bipartisan commission signifies the triumph of
hope over experience. The Social Security and Tax commissions
were dominated by former Democratic senators (the late Daniel
Patrick Moynihan and John Breaux, respectively) who came up with
products that neither met Republican specifications nor appealed
to Democrats. But Moynihan (once a senior aide in the Nixon White
House) and Breaux occasionally strayed from the Democratic gospel.
Not so Rubin.
activism dates back to the McGovern era a generation ago when,
as a hot young investment banker, he was a volunteer party fund-raiser
who impressed older Democratic workers as rigidly doctrinaire.
In 2004, Rubin was an economic adviser to presidential candidate
John Kerry. In 2005, he urged congressional Democrats not to cooperate
with Bush on Social Security reform.
So, why would the
president think Rubin would help him? Perhaps Bush was naive and
misled by superficial impressions. Rubin, now chairman of Citigroup,
is a handsome, well-dressed, soft-spoken, charming multi-millionaire
whom Bush might have mistaken for one of his rich Republican friends
Rubin showed last
weekend in his Bloomberg interview that he is nothing of the kind,
as even the president should recognize. His "fiscal commission"
is clearly intended to end up with restored upper bracket tax
rates that would regraduate the income tax. Rubin is a typical
Democratic operative eager to regain control of the federal government
beginning with the 2006 elections and uninterested in cooperating
with George W. Bush. Is Rubin's slap in the face enough to convince
the president that seeking prominent Democrats on bipartisan commissions
at this point in history is a fool's errand?
2006 Creators Syndicate