WASHINGTON — PRESIDENT Bush has struck an aggressive new political posture against congressional Democrats.
He is joining Republican members of Congress in trying to lend a partisan, anti-Democratic edge to public scorn of Washington politics.
It will be a difficult sell. Anti-Washington, anti-incumbent sentiment has so far fallen on Mr. Bush as well as his Democratic opposition.
But in a speech to Republican leaders on Friday, the president gave the most thematic, cohesive argument yet for why he should be reelected - and why the Democrats in Congress need shaking up.
Up to last week, the Bush campaign was geared primarily to reacting to the assaults of the Buchanan campaign.
And even Bush aides admit they have long found it difficult to pattern their proposals into a package with clear direction and significance - the notorious "vision thing."
But by the end of last week, several developments had prepared the way for the launching of a more sweeping theme.
First, scandals were mounting against Congress concerning the House bank and the House post office - scandals that neatly symbolized a poorly run and self-dealing institution. Bush cabinet members were caught with bounced checks from their days in the House, too. But the Republican argument is that the Democrats ran the bank - and have for 38 years.
Second, the Michigan and Illinois primaries reduced the Buchanan challenge to Bush's renomination to a mere formality. He can now turn his attention to the larger election in November.
Last, the deadline Bush had given Congress in his State-of-the-Union address to pass his economic-stimulus proposals arrived Friday. The bill he received included a tax increase on wealthy taxpayers; he vetoed it. No more Mr. Nice Guy.
So Bush laid out an attack on the political status quo. The president, whose resume virtually defines the Establishment, is probably no one's idea of a revo- lutionary.
But as one indicator of his new theme, he used the word "change" 19 times in a half-hour speech.
At moments, attacking the "hopelessly tangled congressional web of PACs, perks, privileges, partnership, and paralysis," he sounded like Jerry Brown without the turtleneck.
In his most aggressive move, he rescinded the funds Congress earmarked for 68 projects he deemed "pork-barrel" spending. Republicans in Congress have enough numbers to force a vote on each individual item - either deleting the funds or facing the embarrassment of approving $2 million to promote Hawaiian arts and crafts or $100,000 for seedless table grape juice research.
All together, Bush exercised this "line-item rescission" on $3.6 billion worth of spending.
He could have been much more aggressive in confronting congressional spending. On the advice of the Attorney General William Barr and White House counsel Boyden Gray, Bush decided that he did not have legal authority to attempt a traditional line-item veto, by which he could delete spending lines out of the budgets Congress sends him.
But a middle option that Mr. Gray has long seen as legally defensible is to assert presidential power to veto parts of bills not germaine to the main subject. Congress often packs special spending projects into unrelated bills as part of the horsetrading required to pass them.
Bush settled for using a little-known existing statute. It will serve to spotlight Congress's least-attractive spending projects.
"I think laying out the pork-barrel stuff is a very effective way of showing the idiosyncrasies of Congress," said veteran Republican strategist Ed Rollins at a Monitor breakfast Friday.
Mr. Rollins's concern is that the Bush team is constantly shifting direction before a clear message can penetrate public attention. "There just has been an inconsistency in driving home the overall theme," he says.
The Bush team, he explains, "is very much into tactics. There still is not a strategy of how we get from here to Nov. 3."
The Bush speech on Friday positioned him as standing watch against the corruption and mismanagement of the entrenched and arrogant Congressional Democrats.
"The irresponsibility of Congress on this [tax] plan, is part of a pattern," he said. "It reflects a more serious problem, a deeper, systemic problem that is gnawing at the strength of our nation."
The scandals make such an attack on Congress more plausible than ever. In fact, public opinion of Congress is at an all-time low. Even Republican strategist Bill McInturff, whose firm has 30 Republican clients running for Congress, sees no partisan bias in the anti-incumbent fervor.
In other words, voters are not blaming Democrats, just politicians.
For politicians, Bush included, the race is on to become the candidate of change - a word Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton may use even more often than the president.
Bush, says Jeffrey Bell, author of "Populism and Elitism," a book on political philosophy, "will never be a Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan was an initiator of change."
But the speech Friday, he adds, was "another in a series of steps in the transformation of the White House and the Republican party."