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Jewish World Review August 9, 2001 / 20 Menachem-Av 5761

Bill Schneider

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Bush backers out to remake prez yet again -- AFTER six months, President Bush seems to have finally found his footing as a conservative and as a Washington politician. The problem is, that's not where he wants his footing to be.

So his political advisers are launching a new campaign to reposition the President. They want to revive the "different kind of Republican'' Bush claimed to be in his presidential campaign.

President Bush ended his first six months on a high note, with a series of important political victories. The House of Representatives passed his version of the patients' bill of rights and gave him a big win on energy. The problem is, they were political victories, evidence that the new President has learned to play the political game in Washington, D.C.

The President did not win with charm. He won with toughness. He browbeat a key Member of Congress and shrewdly displayed his power. "I'm offering to sign a bill and not veto it,'' the President said the day before the House vote on patients' rights. "That's a pretty powerful incentive for someone to try to come up with an agreement.''

President Bush played the LBJ role. He got what he wanted through lobbying, compromise and coalition-building.

It's called politics. And it saved the President. Suppose he had lost those key House votes. He would have been branded a loser. The press would have gone into a month-long feeding frenzy. Congress would have spent the month figuring out how to roll him.

President Bush has gained respect as a politician. He has also burnished his credentials as a conservative. In the Post-ABC poll, Bush got his highest ratings on international affairs, defense and the budget. His lowest ratings were on the environment, social security, medicare and patients' rights. That doesn't sound like "a different kind of conservative.'' Only one figure clashed with his orthodox conservative profile -- a high rating on education.

Success as a conservative and as a Washington politician are not likely to serve President Bush's interests in the long run. They do not expand his base. Which is why his staff has set out to reposition the President, starting with a month-long "working vacation'' in Texas. "Home to the Heartland,'' the White House calls it, where the President will initiate his call for "Communities of Character.''

The idea is two-fold. First, to promote Bush's personal appeal. "We want to let the country get a glimpse of the real George W. Bush,'' Nicholas E. Calio, the White House congressional liaison, told The New York Times. In fact, the President's personal appeal remains strong. The number one quality Americans admire in the President, according to the Post-ABC poll? "He has strong personal character'' (68 percent), followed closely by "He is honest and trustworthy'' (63 percent). Those un-Clinton-like virtues were crucial in getting Bush elected.

Bush gets his lowest rating, however, on a very Clinton-like virtue. Only 45 percent believe "he understands the problems of people like you.'' The perception is that Bush has led a life of privilege, that everything he has achieved, including the presidency, was handed to him and that he is responsive to rich people and big business. In other words, he is out of touch with ordinary Americans. That is what a month in Crawford, Texas, with side trips to other heartland states, is supposed to do for the President: get him away from Washington politics and put him in touch with the people.

The "Communities of Character'' initative is aimed at a second objective. As the White House plan puts it, "There seems to be a consensus that a renewal of shared values in this country is needed.'' That is certainly true. The Clinton presidency created a consensus on policy but a deep division over values. That division was reflected in the map of the 2000 election results: liberal versus conservative America.

Bush intends to heal that division. It's an ambitious but perilous undertaking. Clinton split the country on values because he was the only President to come out of the culture of the 1960s, a culture that Bush has repudiated. Bush has to identify "shared values'' that do not set off another culture war. Some of the proposals the White House is considering may do that. For example, promoting e-mail contact between grandparents and grandchildren, adding citizenship education to the school curriculum and discouraging racial stereotypes in entertainment.

Other ideas are riskier, like helping parents shield their children from unwholesome media influences, promoting abstinence to discourage teen pregnancy and encouraging private assistance for those in need. "This project should not be seen as religious-based,'' a memo from the White House Office of Startegic Initiatives warns.

President Bush's values initiative will have its first and probably decisive test in the next few weeks, when the President announces whether he will allow federal funding for stem-cell research. According to the Gallup Poll, most Americans believe research using human embryos is morally wrong (54 percent). But an even larger number (69 percent) believe stem-cell research may be medically necessary to help find cures for serious diseases. In fact, most of those who believe stem cell research is morally wrong nevertheless believe it is medically necessary.

If President Bush decides to ban federal funding for stem-cell research, he will make conservatives very happy. He will also doom any attempt to define himself as "a different kind of Republican.''

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06/15/01: The new soccer moms
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05/21/01: The answer is men
05/10/01: Bush v. Carter?


© 2001, William Schneider