Bush Goes Back to the Future

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The continued shuffling at the White House so far signals one sure thing — President Bush finally has a real chief of staff — and one unmistakable trend: the 41ers are back.

For most of the first five and a half years in office, titles notwithstanding, Bush didn't have a chief of staff. Andy Card was many things: family friend, trusted aide, personal assistant. But he was never a chief of staff in the Jim Baker/Ken Duberstein/Leon Panetta mold. Those men played a different hand: they stood at the cross section of policy and politics, managed the process beneath them and teed up the crucial decisions for their boss. Outside of national security matters, they did not share the job with anyone.

Bush opposed that model, having learned the lessons of his father's experience with John Sununu perhaps a little too well. The family lore holds that 41 was misserved by Sununu, who often took as hard a line with the President's allies as with his enemies, and many in the party believe that it was George W. Bush who fired him (both myths are a little at odds with the real story). But in any case, the strong chief model was still much in disfavor inside Bushland even by 2000. No strong chief of staff for me, said 43.

It already appears that Bolten is much more the traditional chief in manner and method, and so it will be interesting to see what that means for the way Bush decides things. Bolten got a lot of attention earlier this week when he called on all Bush hands to declare now whether they want to leave or stay for the duration. This makes good sense; Bush has to calculate how to use what chits he has left to see which nominees through Senate confirmations hearings. It's worth noting that Card had done the same thing a month or so ago, a Card ally explains. The difference is this time the call is being heeded.

And the return to a strong chief isn't the only way in which Bush is dusting off an old playbook. He's also quietly reinstalled the yeomen who peopled his father's domestic policy shops. What do Bolten, the new budget chief Rob Portman, and the economics policy guy Al Hubbard all have in common? They were all up-and-comers somewhere deep in 41's domestic policy operation: Bolten worked on trade, Portman worked on policy in general and Hubbard was deep into deregulation. Susan Schwab, the new trade rep, was a rising star at the Commerce Department in those days, too.

While their individual politics are all a bit different, each was part of a team that passed the 1990 Clean Air bill, a landmark disablity rights measure and the negotiation of NAFTA — exactly the kind of solid accomplishments 41's son would need to close out a lackluster second term with some grace. Many conservatives uttered silent screams when some of those measures passed in the early 1990s, but I'm guessing now the Republicans are too desperate for change to fuss much now. And already there is talk — and some evidence — that Bolten is reaching out to other 41 veterans to fill both the press secretary and chief congressional lobbyist's job.

Which means this Bush White House, which started out keen to strike a very different tone from the father's, may wind up after eight years looking like its shadow.