Bush gains ground by skipping details

His broadbrush strategy lets Congress niggle over specifics while he moves on.

President Bush is not known as a man for details, and his proposals so far show it.

Last week, he sent Congress a tax plan that's more a blueprint than anything else. Like his education and prescription-drug proposals, it doesn't yet have a final price tag. It's not written in legislative language. It doesn't even include the president's latest ideas on the subject - such as making the cuts retroactive.

Yet this notional approach to the presidency, in which he lays down one set of markers and then moves on to the next, is being described as sound strategy by many members of both parties.

For one thing, it has enabled Mr. Bush to avoid the kind of stiff opposition former chiefs like President Clinton often encountered - since it's harder for lawmakers to oppose a plan that isn't completely nailed down. More important, Bush's broad proposals invite input from both sides, allowing all players - Democrats and Republicans - to claim some sort of victory in the end.

"This allows the other branch, as well as the opposition, to feel a part of something," says Stephen Hess, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution here. "That's what we've been trying to get back to: a system in Washington in which everyone wins."

Bush could not have gotten off to such a strong start, rolling out one big initiative a week, had he chosen to wait until his budget was finished and every detail of his plans worked out, says Mr. Hess.

But while there's obviously a conscious decision behind this approach, it also reflects the president's instinctive leadership style.

As governor of Texas, his modus operandi was to concentrate on a handful of items, send broad proposals to the Legislature, and claim victory in the end - even if the agenda didn't come out looking like what he had originally proposed.

"He'd embrace whatever was moving through the legislature as his own," says Marshall Wittmann, a political analyst at the Hudson Institute here.

But he'd also share the credit, an impulse evident in a new sort of humility at the White House. The new president, for instance, has yet to have the Marine Band play "hail to the chief" at any of his events - though today, as he reviews troops in Georgia, could be the exception.

Study in contrasts

Although White House spokesman Ari Fleischer maintains that this kind of stand-back governing is typical in the executive branch, this was hardly the case at the start of the past two administrations.

Patrick Griffin, chief legislative adviser to Mr. Clinton, recalls the painful consequences of presenting a healthcare plan to Congress that was already written up as legislation, with every detail set.

"The whole process was really not inclusive," he admits. "We sent it up with the mandate that you really can't tinker with it." The result was disastrous - the plan essentially blew up in the administration's face.

"The approach in our first two years was to be pretty detailed," Mr. Griffin says. "Less micromanaging would have been more productive. It gives people [on the Hill] a feeling like they can get on board and take some ownership, rather than that this is a done deal."

But it's a fine line that divides micromanagement from informed oversight.

In his second term, Clinton took his hand off the rudder to a much greater extent, and laid out a bare-bones set of guiding principles on key subjects, including Social Security reform and tobacco. But his approach was so vague that Congress complained about lack of leadership from the White House. The issues eventually withered.

"If you're too vague, negotiations can drag on and on at a very abstract level," cautions Roger Porter, an economic and domestic policy adviser to former President Bush.

Unlike his son, the senior Mr. Bush - now referred to as "41" at the White House, while George W. has been nicknamed "43" - did not follow a blueprint approach, says Mr. Porter. He sent detailed initiatives to Congress, which took longer to roll out - though his administration was smart enough to consult extensively with lawmakers beforehand.

Will it all add up?

One potential problem with a broadbrush presidency could be the budget - the very foundation for everything a White House proposes. Because of the truncated transition time, the administration will not have its budget ready this month, as is technically required. So they are presenting Congress with an "economic blueprint" instead, while the actual phonebook-size budget will land in April.

Allen Schick, a professor at the University of Maryland and an expert on budget matters, says the budget delay could be risky for the new president, because it's not clear that all of his proposals will add up.

Lawmakers are likely to be on guard against a "magic asterisk," he says, referring to the promise in President Reagan's budget outline that unidentified spending cuts would be detailed later.

"That was the first tip-off that Reagan's budget plan didn't add up," says Mr. Schick. "People are going to be a little wary this time. They don't want to repeat the mistakes of '81, where we got into a budget mess that took the better part of two decades to resolve."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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