The Best Way to Help Bush: Underestimate Him


By Richard S. Dunham Ann Richards was the first prominent politician to underestimate George W. Bush. During their 1994 campaign for governor, the Democratic incumbent derisively referred to her opponent as "Shrub," questioned his intelligence and business acumen, and suggested once that he had "lost his Herbert." (Unlike his father, George Herbert Walker Bush, Junior's middle name is simply Walker.) Yet, on Election Day that year, Bush won the governor's mansion, ousting the popular incumbent Richards.

Six years later, Vice-President Al Gore underestimated Bush's debating ability. Gore's thinking: How could a man who regularly mangled the English language and coined terms such as "subliminable" and "tacular nucular weapons" compete with the ultimate policy wonk? In the end, what many expected to be the undoing of the Republican nominee ended up to be a turning point in the election. Many voters gave Bush credit for holding his own against Gore. Besides, he seemed more likeable. He exceeded low expections.

ACCIDENT OF HISTORY? Now, after a campaign in which the Texas governor won the Presidency despite losing the popular vote, many Democrats are predicting he'll be a one-term wonder. An accident of history. A weak executive overly dependent on his staff. They'd best be careful about such talk.

Yes, there will be many political pratfalls and crises for Bush between now and 2004. You can bank on that. But after watching the ease with which the 43rd President has set the agenda and changed the atmosphere in Washington so far, this veteran political reporter, who cut his teeth in Texas politics, is starting to wonder: Are his critics doing it again, underestimating George W. Bush?

Even hard-boiled liberals such as Teddy Kennedy and House firebrand George Miller turned into cheerleaders for Bush-style education reform after meeting with the Texan recently. Following a White House session with the new President, Senator Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), a potential 2004 candidate, rushed back to the Capitol to tell Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.): "I think we underestimate this man at our own peril."

STRAIGHT SHOOTER. What does Bush have going for him? Democrats and Republicans alike say he is eminently personable and is an exceptionally good listener. Bush has "a grasp of both policy and political nuance," Bayh says. In Texas, Bush was known as a straight shooter who was eager to work across party lines -- sharing credit and even refusing to campaign against Democrats who had worked with him. And unlike many politicians, he's extraordinarily self-disciplined.

Some Beltway cynics still predict he'll flounder in the fishbowl of the White House. "Austin is not Washington," argues former Senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), along with a host of other naysayers. Critics say Bush lacks the communication ability to persuade Americans via television.

By his own admission, Bush lacks the TV presence of recent "great communicators," such as former Presidents Clinton and Reagan. But he's taking full advantage of his face-to-face charm to persuade lawmakers in intimate White House settings. By the end of his first week in office, more than 90 senators and representatives had trouped over to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to talk turkey with the Boss.

EASIER TO SUCCEED. That's an inside game, but it's also the way to get things done on Capitol Hill -- winning one willing heart at a time. The most common response in the cloakrooms: Bush was better than we'd thought. Moans Democratic National Committee Chairman Joe Andrew: "Expectations are too low. Standards are too low."

For their part, Republican strategists are thrilled at the expectations game. "I'm very pleased that the expectations are so low," says GOP pollster Whit Ayres. "It makes it all the easier for President Bush to succeed."

And look at Bush's first coup: On tax cuts, he has gotten a little help from the slumping economy -- and a big hand from Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan, who endorsed a tax cut in an appearance before a Senate panel on Jan. 25. Already, Democrats have conceded that the President will get key components of his $1.6 trillion package, including marriage-penalty relief and estate-tax elimination. And some prominent Democrats admit that, with Greenspan's blessing of a rate cute during his testimony before Congress, some sort of cut also is inevitable.

"NONSTARTER." But on education reforms, newfound Bush friend Miller says the President's voucher initiative is "a nonstarter." We'll see. With expectations that low for vouchers, even a vastly watered-down compromise could be declared a victory by Bush.

The Pundit Elite still discounts Bush's ability to hang tough. But that's just music to the ears of the White House. "If I were him, I'd love to read every one of those stories," chuckles Democrat Bayh, "because it lowers expectations." And the lower the expectations, the more upside there is in the expectations game. Small wonder the Bushies are smiling. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views twice a month in Washington Watch, only on BW Online


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