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Jewish World Review March 27, 2001 / 23 Nissan 5761

Morton Kondracke

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Ex-Clinton Adviser Thinks Bush Needs More Upbeat 'Vision'


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- 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 country.

"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 maintains.

"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 Washington."

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 charge.

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 century.'"

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 problem.



JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

Up

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08/02/99: Pols blow fiscal smoke on budget surplus
08/02/99: One campaign reform should pass: disclosure
07/27/99: Gore leads Bush in policy proposals

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