Bush's Softer Sell

The White House says its marketing, not its policies, need work

Listen to a barnstorming George W. Bush these days, and you might conclude that he is moving away from the hard-edged conservatism of his initial months in office and shifting more toward the political center. When the President brings up the energy crisis, as he did on June 12 in Madrid, he speaks reverently of conservation, efficiency, and clean technologies that bypass fossil fuels. When Administration officials bring up environmental safeguards, they don't mention how they quickly rescinded Bill Clinton's strict standards on traces of arsenic in drinking water. Instead, there is glowing talk about developing a benign New Environmentalism that protects kids from toxins in the air and water while preserving workers' jobs. On foreign-policy issues, Bush has retreated under friendly fire from his original positions on America's role in the Middle East, the Balkans, the Korean peninsula, and International Monetary Fund bailouts. The new mantra for U.S. allies: Consult, consult, consult.

What seemed like the Bush Administration's black-and-white world view is suddenly taking on a thousand shades of gray. After the customary honeymoon, the President is suddenly coming face to face with a myriad of real-world policy challenges that aren't going to go his way easily. And despite an impressive victory on his tax cut, Bush is grappling with a reality faced by every new President: how to deliver on bold campaign promises when faced with the inevitable, conflicting tug to move more toward the center to govern effectively. Bush's job is complicated all the more by Vermont Senator James M. Jeffords' defection from the Republican Party, prompting a Democratic takeover of the Senate. The shift means that a Bush team noted for saying "my way or the highway" now has to accept more legislative compromise--at the risk of alienating core conservatives.

If Bush doesn't compromise, the chances of angering middle-of-the-road voters are just as high. Bush is suddenly facing a swoon in his job-approval ratings--and the dip is particularly acute among moderate and independent voters. A survey by Lansing (Mich.) polling firm EPIC/MRA in the key swing state of Michigan found that Bush's support is plummeting in key voting blocs. Among independents, his approval rating dropped from 62% to 51% from February to May, and his disapproval rating soared from 20% to 43%. Among middle-class voters earning $45,000 to $60,000 a year, his approval rating slid from 65% to 43%, while those disapproving of Bush leapt from 21% to 50%. "Issues such as arsenic, Arctic drilling, abortion, energy, and the environment are defining Bush in much the same way as gays in the military and health care defined Clinton," says EPIC/MRA Vice-President Ed Sarpolus.

What's more, as Bush discovered as he began his four-day European tour, America's allies strongly oppose what some European Union leaders consider radical and unilateral Administration positions on arms control, missile defense, capital punishment, and global warming. "This is a crossroads for Bush," says independent pollster John Zogby. "He's on the defensive, and he's hurting in the [political] center."

So does that mean the President is moving toward the middle much as Clinton did following the Republican landslide in 1994? Hardly. The President's falling popularity and his weakened position on Capitol Hill are pushing the White House to moderate its tone and reach out more aggressively to independents and partisan Democrats alike. But if you think the new, softer rhetoric marks the dawning of a second, more centrist Bush Administration, you're likely to be mistaken.

For starters, key White House officials, among them top strategist Karl Rove, continue to believe that in the aftermath of the Clinton era of moral relativism, a principled form of stubbornness on the new President's part will ultimately be seen as a virtue. Bush also figures that the more he tacks right in his demands, the less ground he will have to give up during eventual compromises with the Hill. Bush "campaigned on certain causes," insists White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. "We're going to remain tunnel-vision" true to those positions.

Officially, Bush's lieutenants insist that the current downdraft in Presidential popularity can be fixed via a little tune-up of the White House's public-relations strategy. To put this political conundrum in business terms, Bush Inc. feels it has a marketing problem, not a defective product.

But some political pros caution that such a stance risks hanging on too long to a losing hand. Republican moderates are already begging the White House to heed their concerns on the environment, energy, and social spending. And Hill Republican leaders--worried about surrendering control of both houses of Congress in 2002--may rush to the center without him. "Only after that midterm election debacle [in 1994] did President Clinton start heading to the middle," notes Charles Cook, an expert on congressional politics. "The question now is whether the Bush White House will wait for a midterm election disaster before it snaps out of this."

Indeed, if the political ground shifts under Bush's feet as panicked congressional Republicans veer toward the middle, he risks irrelevance--or worse. Still, by doggedly sticking to his guns on core issues--from energy to gun control to abortion--Bush hopes to retain the loyalty of the social and economic conservatives who form the heart of his party. The White House hopes that by adopting more of a soft-sell approach on program packaging, Bush can keep his base intact while winning back the centrist swing voters who helped him prevail in 2000.

Thus, the shift in rhetoric. White House officials concede that the public hasn't yet embraced their positions on issues ranging from global warming to the need to ramp up energy production. But that's not because the Administration's policies aren't good, they argue--it's because they have failed to make an effective case for their cause. On the arsenic flap, says Chief of Staff Card, the White House was guilty of "bad marketing," no more. The Clinton policy, he insists, "wasn't necessarily based on science. We're going to do it right."

Likewise, the President is using his European trip to test-market his pitch for two controversial policies: a go-slow approach on global warming and deployment of a missile-defense system that would effectively kill the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. While the immediate reaction abroad was frosty, Bush is convinced that ultimately, he will be viewed as a principled visionary--at least by voters at home, if not across the Pond.

This damn-the-torpedoes attitude doesn't mean the Bush Administration is prepared to march off the cliff for every conservative cause. Already, the President has signaled that he will sign an education-reform package that does not contain his much-coveted plan to provide government vouchers for private schools, an idea that was defeated by the Senate on June 12.

Several upcoming decisions will make it difficult for Bush to have it both ways, however. By early July, the Administration is scheduled to decide whether the government should fund stem-cell research that has proven promising in finding possible cures for some chronic diseases. Health & Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and many pro-choice Republicans favor federal funding, but anti-abortion activists and White House political advisers oppose allowing scientists to work with fetal tissue. In the end, Bush will anger either his party's core or swing voters.

In another tough call, the White House has to decide whether to launch an all-out offensive to reshape the federal judiciary through the appointment of conservatives. Such a push, while pleasing the GOP's right flank, could face serious resistance in the Senate and alienate centrists. The key issue: How many principled defeats of hard-line nominees can Bush take before he looks politically vulnerable?

The White House is betting that its new focus on smooth salesmanship will help the President hang on to the affections of centrist voters. But even for a crew that swears it never scans the polls, the recent dive in Dubya's job ratings has to be unnerving. Because if those ratings don't improve soon, it's back to Square One for a President who likes to say his policies are "just right" for America.

By Richard S. Dunham in Washington

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