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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' -- 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.


03/16/01: Cultural indicators improved during Clinton years. Why?
03/13/01: Nice talk aside, Bush team wants to win above all
03/08/01: Tax fight turns back to question of what's 'fair'
03/06/01: Bush and Congress should prepare for lean years
03/01/01: Bush needs group to promote ideas in Black America
02/26/01: Bush should talk about long-term budget challenges
02/22/01: AARP's agenda at odds with Bush priorities
02/20/01: When will Dems finally say Clinton is unfit leader?
02/14/01: McCain won't run against Bush again, just differ on issues
02/12/01: Is Joe Lieberman tilting left toward 2004?
02/07/01: The controversy starts: Bush orders HHS study of fetal, stem cell issues
02/05/01: Dems move toward bush on taxes, but ...
02/01/01: Bush should be open with press
01/30/01: Bush Should go for broke early on education
01/23/01: Clinton ain't going away, folks
01/19/01: Bush should try for legacy as 'Great Reconciler'
01/16/01: Left-Center Rift Re-emerges For Democratic Leaders
01/12/01: Clinton doing Bush no favors in Mideast
01/09/01: Bush and Democrats can deal
12/14/00: Will Daschle make it his business to get along with President Bush?
12/08/00: GOP is in danger of ruining record on medical research
11/27/00: Some fascinating stories about how and why people voted
11/22/00: GOP Survived health bullets, but one is left
11/20/00: Can next president and Hill deal?
11/15/00: With nation split, leaders must reach across party divide
11/07/00: The Envelope, Please:Bush Beats Gore, GOP Holds Hill
11/03/00: Parties appeal to two 'gospels'
11/01/00: Lurking in the shadows
10/26/00: What's Gore's Social Security plan?
10/18/00: While Bush, Gore debate surplus, Congress spends it
10/16/00: Two debates leave lots of questions
10/03/00: What questions should be debated?
09/28/00: Gore and Bush should prepare to lead
09/19/00: Bush let values issue slip away
08/25/00: Gore hands center to Bush
08/22/00: AlGore, look to future, not to Bubba
08/08/00: 2000 race could leave high road for low
08/03/00: Convention must point Bush to center
08/01/00: GOP Readies 'Debt Lockbox' As 2000 Strategy
07/27/00: Cheney adds heft to GOP ticket
07/25/00: Foreign, Defense Policy Deserves Full 2000 Debate
07/20/00: Truman Show: Gore Replays 1948, But Bush Isn't Dewey
07/18/00: Bush Must Fight Gore's Drug Plan As 'Bad Medicine'
07/13/00: Mexico's Election Supports U.S. Action On NAFTA, Bailout
07/10/00: Abortion is good for something --- just ask AlGore
07/06/00: Meet Steve Ricchetti, Bubba's secret weapon
06/30/00: AlGore is down, but is he out?
06/27/00: Social programs caught in election-year game of one-up
06/22/00: Congress Is Near Flunking a Test On School Reform
06/16/00: Doting on the grandparents
06/13/00: On Stem Cells, Bush Has Wrong Pro-Life Stance
06/08/00: Has Gore Caught Bush?
05/26/00: PNTR Vote Could Tell Which Party Fits 'New Economy'
05/23/00: The secret to winning the election: Economic programs
05/18/00: Gore should regroup
05/16/00: McCain's Support Is Tepid, But Lets Bush Focus on Gore
05/11/00: Voters need wonk training
05/09/00: Bush Could Score With Charge That Gore's Too Partisan
04/28/00: Reno's force aids Clinton, not Elian
04/25/00: Should Clinton be indicted?
04/24/00: Can Gore win on Bush tax cuts?
04/18/00: Levin's 'bridge' key to China trade?
04/11/00: Congress, U.S. Voters Still Aren't Ready For Campaign Reform
04/06/00: Bush, Gore Silent As Popular Culture Gets Ever Coarser
03/30/00: Is 2000 Like 1948, 1976 or 1960? Or Is This Unparalleled?
03/28/00: Will Bush, Gore Go for a Better Way To Pick Nominees?
03/23/00: Medicare cutbacks bleed hospitals
03/20/00: Chances Improve That China Trade Will Pass Congress
03/16/00: Lieberman as veep would help Gore
03/14/00: Can Bush, McCain Unite to Beat Gore?
03/09/00: Can GOP Forge Unity After Nasty McCain-Bush Race?
03/07/00: What accounts for McCain's excesses?
03/02/00: 'Debate' Proved Gore Is This Year's Best Gut-Fighter
02/29/00: Surprises! The 2000 GOP race is full of it
02/25/00: Voters want centrist in White House
02/23/00: Gore would hit McCain's record
02/15/00: Will negativity hurt McCain in S.C.?
02/10/00: How hard should Bush hit McCain?
02/08/00: Bush must retool his entire campaign
01/27/00: Could Gore beat Bush as Truman beat Dewey?
01/20/00: Big New Surplus Estimates Could Alter 2000 Politics
12/21/99: Bush improves, everyone panders
12/16/99: Prospects improve for campaign reform
12/14/99: Riots raise free trade as 2000 issue
12/10/99: Gore won GOP 'debate' in N.H.
12/07/99: Election pits Bush cuts vs. Medicare boost
12/03/99: Can race be a constructive issue in 2000?
11/19/99: White House race may be best in decades
11/16/99: Where is Bush on health care fight?
11/11/99: Will TV stop profiteering from politics?
11/09/99: Is GOP isolationist, or just partisan?
11/04/99: Gore, Bradley Run Opposite Races On Style, Substance
11/01/99: GOP, Clinton could reach deal swiftly
10/27/99: Bush to fight 'culture wars' -- positively
10/21/99: Porter, Mack: heroes on medical research
10/19/99: Gore scores among party big shots, but polls go South
10/14/99: Bush critiques could help GOP Congress
10/12/99: Congress can save health care from ruin
10/07/99: Will gun-control cause the GOP to shoot itself in the foot?
10/05/99: Gore moves: Desperate but necessary
10/01/99: Fox, Armstrong make case for NIH
09/28/99: Dems' race brightens Bush's chances
09/23/99: East Timor deflates `Clinton Doctrine'
09/21/99: Buchanan v. Bush? Yeah right
09/17/99: Candidates turn attention to poverty
09/15/99: Bush's education problem
09/09/99: Budget makes 2000 an `issues' election
09/07/99:Airport rage increases, with good reason
09/02/99: U.S. future up for grabs in 2000
08/31/99: U.S. Capitol needs visitor's center -- soon
08/24/99: Will 2000 be the year of the foreign crisis?
08/19/99: Neither party has upper hand for '99
08/17/99: Ford gets freedom medal one month early
08/12/99: There's time to catch Bush, say Gore aides
08/10/99: Rudy, Hillary try much-needed makeovers
08/09/99: GOP must launch new probe of Chinagate
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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