Jewish World Review March 27, 2001 / 23 Nissan 5761
Ex-Clinton Adviser Thinks Bush Needs
More Upbeat 'Vision'
PRESIDENT BUSH'S polls are strong and his program is advancing in
Congress, but one of Bill Clinton's best advisers thinks that Bush
lacks a "narrative" or "story line" that will help him lead the
"Reagan had one - 'America is back,'" says former Clinton
communications director Don Baer. "Clinton had a story line -
'We've got to get ready for a great new century.' But the
Bushes don't do story lines well."
Bush and his father might dismiss the idea of story lines as mere
spin - his father famously disparaged "the vision thing" - but
setting out a clear message helps a president govern, Baer
"The country needs a coherent description of what the vision of
the future is," Baer said in an interview. "If you let it become
obscure, then you aren't telling people in your government how
to make priority decisions, telling Congress what you want and
the country how to judge you."
Baer served as Clinton's top message strategist from August
1995 to August 1997, during which Clinton refashioned himself
into a New Democrat and won re-election. Baer exited five
months before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke and is now a
top executive at the Discovery Channel.
Although a Democrat, Baer admits that "Bush is doing a good
job. It's just a missed opportunity not to have a narrative. Bush
is telling a series of tactical stories about taxes and education,
but not strategic ones."
I'd argue that Bush has demonstrated on occasion that he can
provide vision and fit his policies into it, but that he's fallen
down on the task lately.
Through the 2000 election campaign and his inaugural, Bush
successfully identified himself as a "compassionate
conservative" who'd "leave no one behind," "restore honor and
dignity to the White House" and "change the tone in
He's also made clear his major priorities: to improve education,
cut taxes across the board, rebuild the national defense and
reform Social Security and Medicare.
With help from House Republicans, Bush certainly has moved
swiftly on tax cuts, although there's evidence of some
hesitancy about whether he should recast his tax package to
deal with the economic downturn.
Bush is in danger of letting Democrats steal a march on him by
advocating a smaller, front-loaded tax cut targeted to the
middle class, as opposed to the $1.6 trillion, 10-year plan he
developed in 1999 and has stuck to ever since.
So far, Bush's approval ratings are good (in the mid-50s in most
polls), but the public seems to have some doubt as to whether
he's actually the one making decisions.
Ironically, he's being criticized for "backtracking" on campaign
promises regarding carbon dioxide emissions and defense
increases and for "undercutting" his Cabinet officers - but these
are clearly decisions he made himself, demonstrating he is in
Baer's point is that the country needs frequent reminders of
what the President's big picture is and how individual policy
decisions fit into it.
The former Clinton aide also believes that Bush has every right
and opportunity to paint an optimistic picture of the future.
Perhaps for tactical reasons, Bush has sought to emphasize the
problems he's inherited - the weakening economy, a looming
energy crisis and long-term costs facing the Medicare system.
In his Feb. 27 address to Congress, Bush described the future in
mixed terms. "America today is a nation with great challenges,
but greater resources.
"An artist using statistics could paint two very different pictures
of our country. One would have warning signs - increasing
layoffs, rising energy prices, too many failing schools. ...
"Another picture would be full of blessings - a balanced budget,
big surpluses, a military second to none ... technology that is
revolutionizing the world."
Bush said "neither picture is complete in and of itself" and that
the task for him and Congress is to "use the resources of one
picture to repaint the other; to direct the advantages of our
time to solve the problems of our people."
That strikes me as a realistic mission statement. However, in
Baer's opinion, Bush has every opportunity to be more upbeat in
selling his tax cut and his energy and education programs.
"His story line ought to be, 'This is a great moment for our
country. We have an opportunity for this new economy to take
off. We've done so much to improve innovation and
productivity, let's complete the task by putting money into the
hands of people so they can build upon that.
"'Let's give all Americans the education they need to take
advantage of this economy and the opportunities of this new
Baer added, "This might involve recognizing how much we
achieved in the 1990s. Bush's story line would be Clinton's." And
that, of course, is the
JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.
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