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Getting the Bush Administration’s Message Out

March 7, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: The House of Representatives is expected to vote tomorrow on the first big chunk of President Bush’s proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut plan. And with that vote comes the first big challenge of the Bush presidency, a test of the President’s political skills, his discipline, and the effectiveness of his message. How is that message getting through? We ask four White House veterans: Former Carter Press Secretary Jody Powell, former Reagan Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, former Clinton counselor Ann Lewis, and David Gergen, who worked for Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton. Welcome, everyone.

Let’s presume for a moment that the ergonomics regulation that is President Bush wants to roll back will be rolled back; that the tax cut he wants will be passed tomorrow; that his message is getting through. You can take issue with me if you like. Assuming that is all true, Michael Deaver, why?

MICHAEL DEAVER: Well, I think what we are witnessing is the most disciplined White House we’ve ever seen. I thought we were a disciplined White House, but I think the Bush White House that we are looking at today, they knew exactly what they wanted to do before they got there, this President says this is what it’s going to be. If you go to the White House today to talk about an issue they’ll say fine, come back and talk to us later; we are talking about taxes right now and tax reform. If you want to help us on that, sit down; otherwise come back later. They are disciplined and focused on the message.

GWEN IFILL: Is that the Reagan administration playbook?

MICHAEL DEAVER: Well, I think we tried to do that too, but I honestly think – I think they did look at our 100-day plan and they did watch what we had to do. We had to get the economic situation straightened out or we weren’t going to get reelected, and I think George Bush promised a tax cut. And he said this is my number one priority, and this is what we are going to do.

GWEN IFILL: Jody Powell, what’s your take on that?

JODY POWELL: Well, I think they have done — they are off to a very good start and I also credit — I’m assuming they are getting good advise from Mr. Deaver over here. They certainly have adopted it whether they’re getting it or not. I think the other thing they’ve done is that the President, he has sort of learned something from President Clinton too. I mean I thought the State of the Union or the not State of the Union was a great example of triangulation; he managed to position himself very squarely between Republicans ret hots in the Congress and those Democrats that want to spend every nickel. That will get tougher as time goes on but he is doing very well with it so far.

GWEN IFILL: David Gergen, let me try two truisms on you. One is that when the President gets to the White House, he has a megaphone and the other is that he also gets the chance to say whatever he wants and do whatever he wants; is that so in this case?

DAVID GERGEN: No President says and does everything he wants. But I certainly agree with Mike Deaver that this President has taken a page out of the Ronald Reagan playbook and, if anything, has gone Reagan one better in terms of discipline. I think this is a highly disciplined group that has studied Reagan closely. I think they’ve also been very successful at changing the national agenda; we are no longer talking about saving Social Security and Medicare first. We are talking about cutting taxes first. We are not talking about more teachers in schools, as Bill Clinton wanted to talk about. We’re talking about standards in schools. The one area where I might depart from my colleagues is on the success that George W. Bush has had out and beyond the beltway. Unlike Reagan — I don’t think he has come anywhere close to Reagan in his use of the bully pulpit. He is following a very different strategy. He is working inside the system to get his legislation passed. He is not changing public opinion very much. Indeed, I think that is one of his great challenges still is to learn how to rally the public behind him. He is doing better than Reagan on discipline but nowhere near as well as Reagan did on his use of the bully pulpit.

GWEN IFILL: How about that, Ann Lewis?

ANN LEWIS: I think we probably have bipartisan agreement on the first part – the most disciplined White House we’ve seen – really like a campaign and saying we’ve got a message of the day; we are going to stick to the message whatever else is going on – a very good speech. Actually there were moments – as it happens — I teach on Tuesday nights. I was listening to it on a little portable television set. There were moments when I wasn’t sure what year I was in; it was sort of fading in and out, and which administration I was hearing. It was certainly a bipartisan attempt to reach common goals and values. But having said all that and I give this administration great credit for their discipline, I don’t think — I think the real question is — is this a message that can be sustained because they have got the President out there saying we can have it all; we can have a trillion dollar tax cut and we can have prescription drugs. We can have, you know, a trillion dollar tax cut and we can strengthen Social Security. Now, there is going to be a contradiction when the budget comes out – and then I wonder what happens with the effect of having the President out there so clearly saying one thing when this administration and his own budget are going to contradict what he says.

GWEN IFILL: How about the sustainability of this moment for him?

MICHAEL DEAVER: Well, I think obviously when you try to compare it to Reagan, we did not have the economic situation we had in 1981. So people aren’t tuned in. I mean, people were desperate for answers in 1981, which is a lot different than today. But I’ll tell you one thing that I believe. I think that George Bush doesn’t pay a lot of attention to all the things that we say. I think he is going to sustain this message if there is only two people limping because I think he believes in it. And I think one of the things we are learning about this young President is he has got some steel in his back on the things that he believes about. He is going to keep talking about it.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Jody Powell, here is an interesting point. Twenty-two percent of Americans say they don’t think a tax cut should be the number one priority. And, as Michael Deaver just pointed out, George W. Bush is forging ahead. Is there going to be a clash on that?

JODY POWELL: I think there will be more of a debate and more of a serious debate over the tax cut than one might expect. I mean, normally you wouldn’t think it would be hard to persuade people to let the government give them money but it is a little tougher. I do think there is some holdover from concern about the deficits that came from that big tax cut a number of years ago — and people are concerned about other priorities. So I think it’s going to be a tougher sell with the public than you might think. But, I also agree with Mike, that repetition, repetition, repetition, and consistency, consistency, consistency is what he is going to need and also agree that the consistency may get a little bit strained as you get deeper into the weeds on what the numbers actually are. But that’s not a communications issue. That is a policy substance issue that communications people can’t do much about.

GWEN IFILL: David Gergen, on Capitol Hill, they’re already – the Democrats anyway are already saying the honeymoon is over; that bipartisanship has gone to the winds because George W. Bush is ramming the tax cut down their throats. They are in full cry. What do you make of that?

DAVID GERGEN: Well, it’s interesting, I think we’ve all reached the age when we talk about, as Mike did, this young President. (laughter among group)

GWEN IFILL: Speak for yourself, Gergen.

DAVID GERGEN: The, now that I join him in that. I, my sense is that they are, their discipline is that they are not really seeking a bipartisanship of the kind that we all assumed or at least many people assumed right after the election but, rather, it is very much an old-fashioned strategy. You keep your troops with you then you pick off one, two, three, five members on the other side. You call that bipartisan and you get it through. You try to get it just over the top. They are not trying to move toward a sweeping victory on tax cuts; they’re trying to make it one vote at a time. His whole — his campaign, the swing that he’s been making, that President Bush has been making has been so interesting. Instead of going to big states where he can move public opinion, he is going to states like Louisiana where he maybe can pick off Democratic Senator Mary Landreau. She’s up for reelection in 2002. She won a squeaker last time. George W. Bush won Louisiana by eight points. He comes in there, he barnstorms, he tries to create a local communications pressure, a local political pressure. I think these folks are much more interested in politics — and they are very smart savvy political operators — than they are in message. I don’t think this is a team like Reagan and our other Presidents we’ve known where we talked about in the past relies heavily on public persuasion. I think that they’re essentially relying on their political capacity to get things through.

GWEN IFILL: So, Mike Deaver, if what Dave Gergen is saying is true — all this traveling to the different states and around the country is not really about appealing to American voters; it’s about appealing to the same narrow group of votes, Democratic votes that he, that most Presidents did staying right here in Washington?

MICHAEL DEAVER: I think David is right. I think it’s very strategic what they are doing. They are going to states that George Bush did well in; where Democrats are going to be up for reelection next time, and they’re going to put pressure on them and they’re going to put pressure on them right in their own base; they’re not going to do it here.

GWEN IFILL: Is that a message or is that just pressure?

MICHAEL DEAVER: I think it’s both. They obviously have to get the message in. You see, when the President of the United States — as everybody here knows — goes to Louisiana for two days before he gets there, everybody is interviewing the advanced team and then from the time Air Force One sets down till the time it leaves he is live on television. For two days after that they have got all the treasury and tax people in the state on talk radio. It is a five-day media blitz in that particular media area. So it is influencing voters but it is also putting real pressure on those office holders down there.

GWEN IFILL: Ann Lewis – I just wanted to move on to Clinton because, as you know, he has taken a whole lot of the air out of the Bush balloon, at least within Washington. Has that helped or hurt George W. Bush – to have so much attention?

ANN LEWIS: Well, I think early on it helped and I think the Bush people think it helped. And they certainly were helping to fuel some of it. I mean, we’ve heard some of these stories now about they were supposedly, you know, vandalism on Air Force One. Well, there was no such thing. There were charges that were made that have dribbled away. And I think they felt – and they were probably right — that the contrast helped them a lot. But I think by now when we are talking about are you able to move public opinion, that it’s not helpful. What George Bush has to do is establish that he is the President, and that means being the President not just in this very targeted message specifically. Sometimes being President means responding to what is unexpected. That is an aspect of leadership. We haven’t seen him yet in those areas which I think are going to be equally important.

GWEN IFILL: Jody Powell.

JODY POWELL: I guess I disagree a little bit. I think what has gone on with President Clinton has not been very much in the benefit of this administration because it has distracted and confused and in some cases dispirited a lot of Democrats. Plus, if you have to compete for space or time on the air or in print, the President is always going to get more of his share than the loyal opposition is going to get. So whatever gets through — he will get a bigger portion of that than the people on the other side. And there really hasn’t been a great deal on the other side on these big issues yet. It’s just beginning to build. As I said earlier, I think there is going to be more of that and I think that will be healthy. This is not a decision that we ought to make quickly or without thinking it through because it will have far-reaching implications.

GWEN IFILL: David Gergen, what about the expectations game? George W. Bush seems to embrace the notion that people underestimate him so much of the time? Is that helping him?

DAVID GERGEN: Absolutely. I think that Jody is right about the Clinton impact. I think it has helped George W. Bush enormously. In part, many Democrats over the last few weeks have been reluctant to go on television programs to talk about their economic ideas because they are going to be asked about Marc Rich. So I think that President Bush has gained a great deal from that, and he’s clearly gained from the expectations, the low expectations when he went in and gave his inaugural address and then again this past Tuesday night — he gave a very polished performance Tuesday night, I thought. It wasn’t the soaring rhetoric, it wasn’t the uplifting rhetoric that say we associate with a Ronald Reagan, but it got the job done from what he needed to do, and I think that it was so much better than most people talk about George Bush. People are even writing – hey, George W. Bush is actually pretty intelligent. And you know, three months ago, four months ago everybody was dissing the fellow on intelligence. So I think this discipline, this sense of sticking to what he wants to do — he has got a game plan. It’s, it is his own game plan. I think he is doing a lot better inside the beltway than anybody expected three or four months ago.

GWEN IFILL: How about that, Mike Deaver, expectations working to his benefit?

MICHAEL DEAVER: I mean I worked for a guy who was underestimated all his life so I would rather be there than overestimated — but George Bush has not really been tested. Ann said that and I agree. We have yet to see what really is going to be there — what kind of a President he is going to be but I think he is, so far I think he is way beyond what a lot of people thought in this town he was going to be.

GWEN IFILL: Who, at this point, in this presidency would you compare him to, past Presidents?

ANN LEWIS: That’s a good question because I was just going to pick up on the low expectations. That’s an awfully good question.

GWEN IFILL: Feel free.

ANN LEWIS: Part of their discipline and part of their effectiveness is I think they played low expectations and sort of the conventional wisdom like a violin and then George W. Bush steps forward and he always does better than people have expected. So they do a very good job of downplaying in advance. And that can be hard. I think all of us know when you are on the inside, it’s not easy to sort of go along and nod when people underrate your guy.

MICHAEL DEAVER: It’s hard to downplay expectations in this town.

ANN LEWIS: But your impulse is to sort of step up and say, oh, he’s going to be better. They don’t do that, they hold back.

JODY POWELL: I feel so sorry for him every time — (laughter among group)

GWEN IFILL: We are going to leave it right there. David Gergen, everyone else, thank you very much.