For brokering a budget deal and bringing order to a chaotic White House, Erskine Bowles is our Mover & Shaker of the Year.
It's Erskine Bowles' White House. Bill Clinton only lives there.
Under Bowles' tenure as the president's chief of staff, the White House became a mirror of the unassuming Charlotte multi-millionaire: disciplined, gaffe-free and ideology-lite. He brought order to a place that, for much of President Clinton's first term, operated like a combination of a late-night college bull session and a wonkish policy seminar. Nothing typified it more than the president's failed attempt to reform the health-care system. The proposal was a Byzantine castle in the air, more complex than the problem it was supposed to solve and divorced from the realities of the businesses that would have to pay for and administer it.
But under 52-year-old Bowles, philosophical fancy took a back seat to practical policies. The reticent, slim financier cared about things that mattered to his friends back at Quail Hollow Country Club in business-centric Charlotte, things such as a balanced budget, education reform and free trade. What's more, he set the White House to operating like a well-run company.
To use Bowles own language, he employed a business person's "skill set" to make it a place of "goals, time lines and accountability." He viewed himself as chief operating officer to the president's chairman and CEO. "He convened and chaired every significant meeting on the budget," says John Hilley, White House legislative director.
Like any good executive, he expected results. He got them. For the first time in nearly two decades, the president and Congress cooperated to hammer out a balanced budget. "I don't think we could've done a deal without him," says Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. After endless hearings on Whitewater and two government shutdowns, Clinton and Congress distrusted each other too much. But Bowles, with his credentials as a Wall Street deal maker and fiscal conservative, was able to win over the Republicans.
"Balancing the budget is a debate that Washington has had for 15 years," says Doug Sosnik, counselor to the president and a White House staffer before Bowles arrived. "Thanks to Erskine, the debate is over now."
In the '90s especially, the budget has been one of the most divisive topics on Capitol Hill. In 1990, Newt Gingrich, then House minority whip, led a conservative walkout of budget talks between President Bush and congressional Democrats, who had a majority in both houses. And in 1993, not a single Republican voted for the deficit-reduction plan crafted by President Clinton and Democratic lawmakers. But Bowles was able to sway Republican leaders like Gingrich. "I told them what we wanted to do," he says. "I told them I wouldn't mislead them."
It didn't hurt that Bowles also brought the endorsements of two GOP stalwarts: Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth, North Carolina's U.S. senators. "If Erskine tells you something, you can depend on it," Faircloth says. "With this White House, that wasn't always the case." With trust came votes. All 55 Republican senators voted for the tax portion of the budget deal, as did all but one of the GOP's 226 House members. Forty-three Republican senators voted for the spending part, as did 192 GOP House members.
For Erskine Bowles, balancing the budget was a matter of discipline for a nation that had grown accustomed to living beyond its means. Fiscal conservatives like him see a balanced budget as key to sustaining the low interest rates and robust economic growth the country has enjoyed for the last several years. In a sense, they believe the nation's budget isn't all that different from a household's. You can only live for so long on borrowed money. Eventually, the bills come due.
Discipline is the principle that rules Bowles' personal and professional lives, from his choice of hobbies - he jogged daily, completing Washington's Marine Corps marathon in 1982, until sidelined by back pain three years ago - to his approach to interviews. He tells the same stories to reporters time and again and has even given the same quotes, word for word. A favorite: "I'm a creature of the private sector. It's my natural habitat." Or his response to the question of why he took the chief of staff's...