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An Upstaged Dubya Isn't a Pretty Sight

By Richard S. Dunham It was largely overshadowed by the Bush Administration's carefully scripted Tax Cut Week. But while the cameras were busy recording Bush doing his best "Read My Lips: Tax Cuts for All," a minidrama over managed-care patients' rights played out in the shadows. And it may be an early indicator of what happens when this very disciplined White House is thrown "off message" by one of its political antagonists.

The players in the health-care dust-up: a chief executive riding high in the polls, a tough-talking maverick Republican senator, and a group of small-business lobbyists who are usually very pro-Bush. Let's call this show Patients' Rights & Political Wrongs.

It all started when Arizona GOP Senator John McCain, Bush's 2000 campaign rival and a general pain in the Presidential posterior, decided to rain on Bush's tax-cut parade by rolling out his version of an HMO Patients' Bill of Rights. As a co-sponsor of his bipartisan package, McCain enlisted liberal icon Teddy Kennedy of Massachusetts, who happens to be a very large target of an ongoing "charm offensive" from the resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

HARD FEELINGS. Needless to say, Bush denizens were furious at their nemesis for both the timing of his announcement and its content. You see, Bush had planned to have his own Health Care Week in the near future, and he didn't want McCain to beat him to the punch and to enlist his intended date, Teddy K.

What happened next? The White House retaliated by putting the strong arm on two House Republican backers of HMO reform, Representatives Charlie Norwood of Georgia and Greg Ganske of Iowa, to stiff McCain. Norwood agreed, but Ganske, whose hard work for Bush in 2000 nearly resulted in a GOP upset in the Hawkeye State, stayed the course. The incident caused Norwood some political embarrassment and amplified hard feelings between McCain and Bush.

Without consulting with its business allies, the White House also hurriedly rushed out a "declaration of principles" on patients' rights, most notably a "reasonable" right to take legal action against rogue health plans. By doing so, says Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, the President hopes to protect patients' rights without creating "a lawyers' right to sue."

UNCOMFORTABLE SPOT. What's that? The White House wants to give some individuals the right to sue? Those are fighting words with The National Federation of Independent Business, the major lobbying group for America's small businesses. Soldily behind the Bush tax cut plan, the NFIB found itself in the uncomfortable position of simultaneously taking issue with the President's position on health care. The NFIB's gripe? Bush was opening the door to lawsuits against small businesses that provide health care to their workers -- while not even paying lip service to the group's top concern: improving access to health care for Main Street shop owners.

"We will not be taken for granted," insists NFIB President Jack Faris, a Nashville businessman. "We don't normally do this, but we wanted them to know how strongly we feel about this," adds chief NFIB lobbyist Dan Danner. Noting that the White House was surprised by the NFIB's wrath, Faris quips, "Surprise is a two-way street."

What lessons should be drawn from the Bushies' carelessness? They are threefold. First, the White House has been superb when following its own game plan. The "roll outs" of education reform, the faith-based social-services initiative, an expansion of assistance to the disabled, and the tax-cut proposal all were policy and PR triumphs. But Team Bush seems less surefooted when it comes to calling political audibles. The Administration's responses to unexpected events have been surprisingly heavy-handed.

ONE-WAY, OR TWO? Second, McCain seems to have an uncanny ability to get under Bush's skin. The conservative senator has already zapped the White House with his campaign-finance and health-care reform proposals. What's next: Airline passengers' rights? McCain is acting as if he -- and not Bush -- has a mandate to enact policy. Bush will have to learn how to deal with McCain's distractions without being forced into committing errors.

Third, the White House sometimes treats bipartisanship as a one-way street. It's fine to have Democrats in tow if they endorse Republican proposals. But if those same Democrats have their own bipartisan proposal, they're seen as "off-the-reservation" and a political enemy by some White House operatives. Bush is going to have to learn that bipartisanship means sometimes having to compromise with Teddy Kennedy -- or John McCain. If not, Washington will turn into showdown city before 2001 is out. And that's not in Bush's carefully scripted plan for the first year of his Presidency. Dunham is White House correspondent for Business Week. Follow his Washington Watch columns, only on BW Online

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