Why Dubya Oughta Dump His Gipper Act


By Richard S. Dunham Twenty years after Ronald Reagan rode into Washington on his white horse, determined to save the world from commies and welfare cheats, there's a Reagan imitator in the White House. Strangely enough, George W. Bush has consciously modeled the Bush II Presidency not after his father but after the Gipper. Like Reagan, he's trying to come off as a nice guy standing up for core conservative principles. He may be substantially more conservative than many Americans, but, well, golly, he's a likeable guy.

Like Reagan in '81, a similarly tough-talking Bush is barnstorming the nation to intimidate reluctant lawmakers into backing his budget and tax-cut plans. How studied is the comparison? Bush fils has even adopted Reagan's trademark mannerism of cupping his hand to his ear to pretend he didn't hear questions shouted by reporters.

ADEPT VS. INEPT. On paper, it's a good plan. Just one problem: Dubya is no Ronald Reagan. To start with, he didn't win a 40-state landslide. Heck, he didn't even get as many votes as the other guy. More important, when Reagan flew into Democratic districts and towns, preaching the gospel of "Morning in America" conservatism, local officeholders quaked in their boots. They knew the term Reagan Democrat was no mistake -- the Gipper had a populist charm that appealed across party lines.

Contrast those Reagan appearances of past with the new President's appearances on the hustings. Who's influencing whom here? Not only has Bush failed to win a single Capitol Hill convert, he has transformed some potential Democratic collaborators into skeptics who can barely conceal their smirks at Bush's ineptitude. Just ask Louisiana's moderate Democratic senators, Mary Landrieu and John Breaux.

With his road show bombing from Sioux Falls to Baton Rouge, Bush's advisers would be wise to regroup. So what does he need to do to retool his Reagan act into a performance worthy of Broadway? Here are a few unsolicited suggestions:

Talk with -- not at -- lawmakers. In addition to Breaux and Landrieu, Bush needs to invite moderates such as Senators Olympia Snowe (R-Me.), Jim Jeffords (R-Vt.), Linc Chafee (R-R.I.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Max Cleland (D-Ga.), and Joe Lieberman (D-Ct.), and Representatives Charlie Stenholm (D-Tex.) and Chris Shays (R-Conn.) to the White House to talk turkey. The only way that Bush will win passage of education reform, a health-care patients' bill of rights, and a new prescription-drug benefit for seniors is to develop a majority consensus first. Rule No. 1 of Washington: He who has the most votes wins. Hardball politics will yield only frustration and defeat on Capitol Hill. Even the Gipper cut deals. Remember Social Security reform and the '86 tax overhaul?

Play to your strengths. In many ways, Bush is the opposite of Reagan in stature. On stage, Reagan was a master of pomp and pageantry, and a dynamic actor and public speaker. Bush still hasn't mastered the mystique. Maybe he never will. Try picturing Bush saying: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" It's not the same. But unlike Reagan, who often appeared detached and out of focus in small groups, Bush is personable and persuasive one-on-one. He should take his cues from another Texan President, Lyndon Johnson: Bring lawmakers to the White House and schmooze them. Reasonable people are likely to find common ground on public-policy issues. Consensus doesn't necessarily mean abandoning core principles.

Kiss and make up with John McCain. The President and the Arizona senator deny it, but everybody else in Washington is talking about their "feud." It's time for Bush to really bury the hatchet -- and not in McCain's back. Instead of sniping at McCain's bipartisan HMO bill of rights, work to reach common ground. Rather than letting the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform fall victim to stalling tactics in the House, move it along with all due speed. It isn't as hard as it may seem. It just takes the strength to let bygones be bygones. The campaign rhetoric of 2000 got a little nasty on both sides. But the election is over. Bush won. Now, he must govern.

Listen to the people. The President says he won't let public-opinion polls determine his policy preferences. Fine. The American people are tired of the Clinton era for now and finger-to-the-wind pols. But Bush's recent public events have been little more than replays of campaign rallies, down to the same old campaign slogans. Give it a rest. It would be better to hold some town-hall-style meetings, where average Americans get to tell the President what's on their minds. Not only would it be a refreshing change of pace, it might also be enlightening.

That's my two cents. I really don't think White House political strategists will embrace these suggestions any time soon. They still believe that Democrats will give in -- eventually -- if the President refuses to give ground. Maybe so. But the price of victory, in that case, would be more ill will on Capitol Hill and a growing public perception that Bushian conservatism holds little compassion. That's no way to win one for the Gipper. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online


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