Bush leadership style: slim on Texas bravado

Mindful of national profile, governor pursues cautious agenda in

To get an idea of how presidential politics has invaded every nook of the pink Texas Capitol, consider two recent scenes from the waning days of the legislative session.

At a press conference, Gov. George W. Bush castigates President Clinton for the Chinese spy scandal. "The balance of power is going to shift as a result" of China's alleged espionage, Mr. Bush warns. "The next president is going to have to deal with that."

Down the hall, as lawmakers debate bills on the floor, lobbyists wait outside, grumbling that the attention of the governor and his staff is everywhere but on state issues. "They have other things to do," says one with a shrug.

It's a complaint Bush has heard countless times during the past few months - and an indicator of how difficult it is to run for president while governing a state. With the office comes instant stature; with the presidential bid comes close national scrutiny. And in recent days, Bush has had to decide how to balance the two.

The result, experts say, has been something less than dynamic. While critics and comrades have taken different tones, most agree that the governor's steps have been cautious and his agenda has been limited.

Some point out that Texas governors' powers are weak. Others note that all the national attention may have tempered his desire to bite off a big issue. Regardless, the portrait of Bush painted in this legislative session, analysts say, is not one of a visionary, but a political pragmatist.

With the session ending over the weekend, Bush can claim some modest successes. Several of the bills that bear Bush's "compassionate conservative" trademark will be signed into law in June, including teacher pay raises, "meaningful" state tax relief, and a bill to limit lawsuits springing from Y2K computer glitches.

Lawmakers even managed to pass a controversial bill that requires a doctor to notify parents if their daughter is seeking an abortion.

But the session also had its share of flops. A Bush-backed "voucher" bill to give low-income parents state money to pay for private school tuition died in committee. And the James Byrd anti-hate crimes bill, named after the African-American from Jasper, Texas, who was dragged to death, was scuttled as well.

Bush denied requests to lobby on behalf of either bill, saying he would give them his consideration if and when they made it to his desk.

BUSH'S reluctance, or unwillingness, to twist arms for controversial bills has some lobbyists grumbling and and a few pundits chortling.

Asked to describe the governor's impact on this legislative session, liberal columnist Molly Ivins says: "Pretty much zip." But this hands-off brand of governance suits lawmakers just fine, she adds.

"People like 'Shrub' - he's a likeable guy," says Ms. Ivins, using one of her favorite nicknames for Bush. (Her other nickname is "Dubya," as in George "W." Bush.) "But Dubya doesn't have a position on anything. How much can a governor straddle? He's an artful straddlist, but this is ridiculous."

Others see a hands-off style, too. "In the last session, Bush was everywhere, knee-deep in negotiations," says Harvey Kronberg, publisher of a political newsletter called the Quorum Report. This time, "he was a nonplayer, from a Republican standpoint."

But out among the suited throngs who gather near the legislature door, one lobbyist, who requests anonymity, says Bush's style this session has been consistent with past efforts.

Pointing to a long list of successes from Bush's first legislative session, including new education spending, tort reform, and stiffer juvenile sentences, the lobbyist argues that many of these bills had already been lined up by Senate and House leaders before Bush was elected.

"Dumbo could have been governor and that stuff would have passed," he quips.

If there is ill feeling out there in the lawmaker and lobbying set, it may spring from the fact that Bush's work on legislation has been behind the scenes, but his presidential explorations have been front and center. Every week, Bush prepares for presidential politics by receiving briefings on national and foreign-policy issues.

Every day, fax machines across the city churn out updates of which prominent Republicans from Alaska to Nebraska have thrown their support behind Bush. The governor even found time last month to meet privately with the visiting prime minister of Slovenia.

But Bush supporters say all this preparation has not hampered his performance as governor.

"Governor Bush has been very engaged in the legislative process this session," says Linda Edwards, a Bush spokeswoman. "He has been meeting with legislators every day. The amount of time the governor has spent on bills this session is comparable to the time he's spent in past sessions."

FOR his part, Bush says voters can see his work in a more efficient state government.

"When all is said and done, people will say Governor Bush has been a fiscal conservative with a few priorities, and he slowed the growth of government," Bush said at a press conference.

But if Bush's leadership style seems to lack that revolutionary zip that fires up the partisans, it may be just part of being the cautious front-runner. After a year of impeachment hearings and partisan sniping, some experts argue that Americans may be ready for a little less vision, thank you.

"This is the kind of good economic time when it's possible to be elected without being terribly visionary or courageous," says Bruce Buchanan, presidential scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. "You can be a modest personality. I think he's a product of his time in that sense."

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