Bush starts on clear, simple plan

Despite early hard-line stands, he's likely to compromise to get some early victories.

As George W. Bush descends from his inaugural mountaintop to the real world of Oval Office politics, expect a first year defined less by high-minded conservative ideals and more by the pragmatism required for legislative success.

To be sure, Mr. Bush's plans appear ambitious. Despite his lack of a mandate, he is so far sticking with an agenda that diverges not in the slightest from his campaign promises. This week, he plans to send education legislation - including controversial school vouchers - to the Hill. And aides say within six weeks he'll have a plan to cut taxes, as promised, by $1.3 trillion.

But it's likely that these bold stands are merely the new president's opening negotiating positions, Washington observers say. What the nation's CEO wants more than every last penny in his tax-cut plan is a series of legislative successes in his crucial first year. To that end, Bush will focus on only a handful of priorities, using his corporate-management style and personal charm to bring about the best deal possible - with the emphasis on possible.

To get that, however, he'll start by asking for the maximum, says Marshall Wittmann, a political expert at the Hudson Institute here. "It's the worst thing in the world to start from compromise. It shows weakness," he says. "They're playing it smart by acting as if they won the popular vote and they have a mandate. But they won't be oblivious to the political realities in the endgame, where they'll compromise."

Mr. Wittmann and others draw that conclusion not only from Bush's record in Texas, but from last week's testimony of his cabinet nominees - seven of whom were approved over the weekend.

When the soon-to-be Treasury secretary appeared before Senate members, a slight softness could be detected in his position on tax cuts. Caution was heard in the secretary of State's remarks about a national missile-defense system. And the Health and Human Services secretary expressed flexibility in response to criticism of Bush's prescription-drug plan - which is next on the agenda after education.

Bush is also likely to pursue leftover items from the previous Congress - such as accountability in education, or eliminating the estate tax - thereby picking up some easy legislative victories. President Clinton made use of just such a situation when he signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, which his predecessor had vetoed.

As Bush embarks on his opening months in office, "he's saying, 'Watch me. I'm going to show that government can work - and that I can make government work,' " says presidential historian Richard Shenkman.

First-year performance is critical to any presidency. Unfocused and surrounded by inexperienced outsiders, Bill Clinton stumbled badly at the beginning of his term. Jimmy Carter, meanwhile, tried to do too much too soon, confessing in his diary that people were telling him to narrow his agenda.

So far, Bush looks to be ripping pages from the playbook of Ronald Reagan, who stuck to a few themes and planned his transition with such precision that even his budget was ready by Inauguration Day. "His model is Reagan - who came in with a couple items and got them done. When that happens, people say, 'Oh, that's a successful president,'" says Mr. Shenkman.

During the campaign, Bush outlined his limited selection of goals often, making them easy for the public to remember. As governor of Texas, he picked a handful of priorities to push, and as president, he's likely to do the same, focusing on education reform, tax cuts, a military buildup, faith-based social programs, and entitlement reform.

He's even going about it in much the same style as Reagan - tackling his priorities early, assembling an experienced team to carry them out, and delegating considerable authority to those individuals.

The same kind of behind-the-scenes planning that produced a roster of high-power cabinet secretaries in record time has also gone into the legislative rollout. Policy groups, meeting regularly with Chief of Staff Andrew Card and other senior administration officials, have been working on a road map for their agenda. That has made it possible for the new president to move right away on the executive front. On Saturday, Bush signed executive orders temporarily freezing some of Clinton's recent initiatives.

"This is one impressive group of people," says Charles Jones, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "It's going to be a very workmanlike operation from day one."

Of course, unexpected events can sometimes sabotage a new president's plans. President Kennedy was dealt the Bay of Pigs missile crisis in his first year, which stalled his legislative agenda. Bush's first crisis may turn out to be the fact that California - the nation's biggest economy - doesn't have enough electrical juice to power the state.

At the same time, Bush is governing in a unique political landscape. It's been more than 100 years since a president assumed office without winning the popular vote. And the 50-50 tie in the Senate presents him with an additional challenge.

"This is not FDR winning a landslide and coming in to pass the New Deal programs," says Shenkman. Bush is "trying to do what Reagan did - but the difference is, the opposition party has 50 seats in the Senate."

It's a difference that will, in the end, encourage compromise, says Mr. Jones. The tricky part for Bush, he says, will be in managing the outer wings of both parties - getting things done without inflaming the far right, or so infuriating Democrats that they turn obstructionist. "There's reason to be optimistic," says Jones, "but there's a possibility the whole thing busts apart."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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