The President's `Honest Broker'
Roger Porter defends George Bush's strategy and style on domestic policy. INTERVIEW
WASHINGTON — ROGER PORTER wants to set the record straight. There really is vision in the Bush White House, he says. Mr. Porter, who is the president's chief economic and domestic policy adviser, has known George Bush since they first met on the tennis court when Mr. Bush was director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Porter is one of several men who were talked into leaving prestigious posts at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government to join the administration. The group includes Attorney General Richard Thornburgh and Budget Director Richard Darmon.
When asked in a Monitor interview in the West Wing of the White House to describe the Bush agenda, Porter points to the environment, drugs, crime, and education as being at the top of the list. ``He has submitted the most far-reaching piece of clean air legislation that we've had in two decades,'' Porter claims.
Yesterday, Bush was to outline his drug strategy before the nation. On Sept. 27 and 28 he will bring together the 50 governors of the United States for an education summit in Charlottesville, N.C. This is only the third time a president has convened all the states' chief executives to address an urgent problem, Porter notes.
To the charge that Bush's planning is short-sighted, Porter recounts a recent conversation he had with the president aboard Air Force One.
``We were talking about the Founding Fathers,'' says Porter, ``Franklin and a whole host of individuals whom we rightly revere. And we were asking what was it about that generation that caused them to be the way they were. And I reminded him that there was a term that they used frequently - that George Washington used nine times in one major address - and that term was `posterity.'''
BUT economist Barry Bosworth of the Brookings Institution says that posterity, rather then reaping the benefits of the Bush domestic agenda, will be paying for it.
Mr. Bosworth says the Bush administration responds to public concerns with calls for new domestic programs. ``But in a budgetary sense, they just don't commit very much money....
``There was an explicit decision made to finance all of the [Savings & Loan] losses by just borrowing, and I suspect that's the way the US will continue to behave over the next decade so that most of the new expenditure programs will be financed by debt issues.''
Political scientist Walter Dean Burnham, who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, calls the Bush style ``cheerleading.''
``President Bush has been too obviously a cheerleader when he enunciates his goals of going to space and all that,'' says Mr. Burnham. ``You can talk about being an education president, to the extent that it gets beyond cheerleading - it requires appropriations.''
Kevin Phillips, a noted conservative political analyst and columnist, puts it another way. He calls the Bush administration ``reactive'' on domestic policy. It's a style, he says, that's consistent with ``the pattern of third-term administrations.'' It's never easy, says Phillips, for any administration to ``follow an activist two-term president and look like they have much of a domestic policy....
``They've identified what the public is concerned about - drugs, education, the environment,'' Mr. Phillips continues. ``They want to change things, but not very much.''
Robert Greenstein, of the nonprofit Center for Budget Priorities, criticizes Bush for a strategy of devising programs that evoke a positive response and then leaving Congress to come up with budget cuts elsewhere to pay for them.
The president, Mr. Greenstein says, ``lumped hundreds of programs into one category'' in his budget to Congress and then said, ```You figure out how to reduce the overall category.' The administration didn't have the guts to say, `Here are our priorities, and here's where we want to cut.'''
Porter defends the administration's conservative approach to the budget. ``George Bush campaigned in 1988 on the pledge not to raise taxes. He submitted his Fiscal Year 1990 budget without a tax increase.'' An agreement has been worked out with Congress, he says, and the key to implementing the Bush vision is to establish spending priorities and balance the budget.
``Multiple advocacy,'' Porter says, is the model for the Bush administration's approach to governing. Multiple advocacy is a term that Porter himself coined in a scholarly article entitled ``Presidential Decision Making,'' which eventually became a well-respected text in the field. The model ``includes department and agency heads as well as officials in the Executive Office of the President in a very collegial type arrangement,'' says Porter, who also created his own job description in this administration: that of ``honest broker.''
```Honest broker' refers to the individual responsible for pulling together all the strands of a policy issue and all the individuals who have a legitimate stake in the issue,'' he says.
An honest broker also ``has the responsibility for looking at the problem from the vantage point of the president and making sure that the options developed are optimal from the standpoint of the president.''
WHILE some still see the potential for political bloodletting over Bush's domestic policy style (Congress begins to gear up this week, back from its summer recess), Roger Porter sees only support and consensus between the administration and Congress. He has watched the interactions between the President and Congress at close hand.
``I think he's developed a healthy respect for many of them and they have of him. And he has shown a willingness and flexibility in dealing with them on particular issues that I think bode well.''
Porter is no stranger to the White House. Harvard and Oxford educated, he was formally introduced to Pennsylvania Avenue as a White House Fellow in 1974. By age 28 he was executive director of President Ford's economic policy board, and was a consultant to the Reagan administration.
Porter is a religious man, a Mormon by background, with a quiet, reserved style. He's also quick to respond with subtle humor when asked whether he, Budget Director Darmon, and Attorney General Thornburgh don't in fact match the model that Bush criticized Michael Dukakis for in the 1988 presidential campaign.
``I'm obviously mindful of the comments that the president made about the Kennedy School during the course of the campaign,'' says Porter. ``I would hasten to add that at the first Cabinet meeting that we held over in Blair House - this was before January 20 - the president, in introducing me at that time, said that despite the fact that we came from the Kennedy School, I was all right and so was Dick.''