Bush Is Riding High on the Hill

Dubya has silenced the skeptics--and put Democrats on the defensive

For the next four weeks, George W. Bush plans to hole up serenely at his Crawford ranch, readin', writin', and recreatin' with friends. When he gazes out the window, he will see a stark Central Texas landscape that seems to undulate in the sun's unforgiving heat. But in truth, it's more than the Greater Waco cow-plex that's sizzling in August. President Bush is hot, too, savoring a Capitol Hill winning streak that has vanquished his image as a hamstrung leader.

In the days before Congress knocked off work for the summer recess, Bush won key House showdowns on oil drilling, patients'-rights legislation with sharply limited damage awards, and a controversial initiative that gives religious groups more of a role in delivering social services. And as if to reinforce Bush's can-do message, tax-rebate checks stamped with an Austin, Tex., originating address are arriving in mailboxes across America, reminding voters of the signal accomplishment of the new Administration.

So much for skeptics who had predicted that Bush's first months on the job would be a downhill slide to irrelevance. Once again, the President has shown an ability to rise to the occasion at just the right moment. "There's an overwhelming tendency on the part of pundits and elites to underestimate George W. Bush," says GOP pollster Whit Ayres. "The White House has been very adept at compromising where they needed to in order to get a bill passed without sacrificing fundamental principles."

But wait--even with the President's popularity ratings rising toward the high 50s, D.C. politicos are already suggesting that Bush's string of victories is likely to be short-lived. Their reasoning: When Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and his Democratic brethren get hold of the Bush agenda in September and begin to shoot down one conservative initiative after another, the President's hot streak will quickly cool.

The problem for the Democrats, though, is that such scenarios may amount to little more than late-summer daydreaming. More likely, Bush is on track to muscle more of his campaign priorities into law this fall, including a patients' bill of rights, a bipartisan energy plan, sweeping education reform, and a defense-spending hike that includes more money for an antimissile shield. It'll take a little compromise, but if the first half-year of the Bush Presidency is any guide, much of the compromising will be to his advantage.

THE "L" LABEL. Bush's ability to extract concessions is just one of the reasons Democrats will be on the defensive after Labor Day. By portraying Bush as a captive of the Right, Senate Democrats are in danger of typecasting themselves as naysayers wedded to a liberal agenda. Among their recent claims: The Medicare system isn't broken, and more money is needed for domestic priorities from schools to farm aid. Those programs, they argue, can only be funded by scrapping future installments of the just-enacted tax cut. "The danger for them is to be as dogmatic about their positions as they claim Bush is being about his," says University of Texas political scientist Bruce Buchanan.

The fall scrum on Capitol Hill will be the biggest challenge yet for new Senate Majority Leader Daschle, who has not been tested since his early win over Bush in a Senate showdown on patients' rights. Daschle is more liberal and partisan than some of his Senate colleagues, and despite Bill Clinton's repositioning of the Democratic Party closer to the political center, Republicans are eager to reaffix the old liberal label.

What's more, if Democrats say no to every House-passed Bush initiative, they risk being tarred as obstructionists. While polls show the public agrees with Democrats on issues ranging from the environment and school reform to patients' rights, voters also want action. That puts pressure on the Democrats to give ground. And while the Democrats' congressional incumbents retain an edge over Hill Republicans in job-approval ratings, their advantage has been cut nearly in half since June, from 11 points to just 6, according to an Aug. 1-3 Gallup Poll.

GOP strategists hope to close the gap even more. As Bush kicks back in Texas, aides are finalizing an aggressive fall strategy. Phase One: completing the checklist of top campaign priorities. Already, the contours of final deals are taking shape. On energy, for instance, Bush is likely to give up the Alaska drilling he won in the House--and some House-passed tax goodies for oil companies--in exchange for a modest package of consumer tax credits and increased drilling in the Lower 48. On the patients' bill of rights, Bush will work to cut a deal with his sometime adversary Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would broaden the right to sue but maintain stingy caps on pain-and-suffering verdicts. Says Bernadette A. Budde, senior vice-president of the Business Industry Political Action Committee: "The potential for assembling winning coalitions is enormous."

A tougher task will be trade legislation, where Bush seems reluctant to give ground to centrist Democrats who are demanding modest protections for environmental and labor rights. One trade lobbyist says Bush is hanging tough and will yield only if an anxious business community pressures him for a quick compromise. Corporate America could also face disappointment on the tax-cut front. After backing Bush's personal tax cuts this spring, business was hoping for a second bill featuring capital-gains rate reductions and depreciation-expensing changes. But with the economic downturn sapping the surplus, there's just no money for corporate cuts.

VALUES BID. Even while deal-cutting is taking place on Capitol Hill, Bush will launch Phase Two of his fall offensive. He's planning a series of events designed to appeal to centrist voters, following a six-month focus on locking up his conservative base. A senior White House aide says the President plans to focus on values-related issues that "unite Americans." Among them: Using the Presidential bully pulpit to lecture corporations on the value of workplace diversity and to jawbone the entertainment industry on the harm of racial and ethnic stereotyping in entertainment.

The values pitch is designed to appeal to moderate suburban voters who have been put off by the social conservatism of Bush's first six months. Still, White House strategists see it as a two-fer: Bush will focus on issues that unite social conservatives and centrist independents. Among such issues: school safety and teen pregnancy.

Republican strategists hope the initiative will overcome the widespread view that Bush is a captive of Corporate America and wealthy campaign contributors. That may be a tough one: a July 26-30 ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 67% of Americans think "large business corporations" exert too much influence over Bush.

For a President who failed to win a majority of the popular vote, Bush has had a remarkable run of victories. Now, he's starting to focus on the next campaign: the 2002 midterm elections. If Republicans are going to hold their own, they must appeal to Independents. While swatting flies in Crawford, Bush advisers are plotting ways to reach out to the political center as they try to maneuver Democrats into alienating those same swing voters. Too ambitious? Perhaps. But George W. Bush has a way of exceeding expectations.

By Richard S. Dunham in Washington

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