Bush hits to the center

In his first major presidential speech, he's at his bipartisan, platitudinous best.

Published March 1, 2001 4:59AM (EST)

President Bush was asked Tuesday afternoon if that evening's address to Congress was the most important speech of his life.

"Every one of them are important," the president replied.

With the benefit of a teleprompter, practice and the able hand of speechwriter Michael Gerson, however, Bush's 49-minute "Speech to the Congress of the United States" improved his response to this question. In a fairly masterful performance, Bush was at his bipartisan, platitudinous best.

He was confident and relatively fumble-free, with a few exceptions. ("Education is not my top priority," he said, to which he was tellingly met with one of the 88 traditional incidents of too-frequent enthusiastic applause. After the clapping died down, he corrected himself, saying, "Education is my top priority.") He talked strong and courageous on Social Security and Medicare reform, kind and caring on education, principled on tax cuts.

He chortled, smiled and kept to the script almost word for word, much of which was borrowed rather liberally from his campaign stump speeches -- "Leave no child behind," "The surplus is not the government's money, the surplus is the people's money," "I like teachers so much, I married one." Plus, of course, the obligatory Spanish. "Juntos podemos," he said. "Together we can."

Having read a poll or two in the past few weeks, the Bush marketing department made a number of savvy decisions. Bush seemed to have one conservative principle only -- for the tax cut he proposed in the campaign, and on this he even seemed like the moderate in the room.

"Some say my tax plan is too big," Bush said as the Democrats applauded.

"Others say it's too small," he said as the GOP clapped on cue.

"I respectfully disagree," he said as the room laughed. "This tax relief is just right." And the crowd went wild.

Everything else was straight out of the Democratic Leadership Council playbook. "Government has a role, and an important one," Bush said. "Our new governing vision says government should be active, but limited; engaged, but not overbearing."

But the $1.6 trillion tax cut, the most controversial part of his budget proposal -- which, in pure dollars, benefits the wealthiest Americans more, though gives lower-income Americans the biggest-percentage tax cut -- was only presented after a list of other priorities, as if he were crafting the budget before our very eyes, paying off what he needed to before giving us the leftover cash.

He discussed it only after talking about education; about increasing Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement spending programs by $81 billion; and about upping discretionary spending by 4 percent -- slightly more than the rate of inflation -- while also paying down the debt, a task he has only recently added to his list of priorities.

"And then when money is still left over," Bush said, "my plan returns it to the people who earned it in the first place."

The tax cut was Bush's clear emphasis. Instead of trotting out the millions of dollars that he, Vice President Dick Cheney, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, Commerce Secretary Don Evans and the rest of the millionaires in his Cabinet would save through his proposed tax cut, the president trotted out the Ramos family from West Chester, Pa.

Steven and Josefina Ramos would stand to save just a tad more in the Bush tax cut than the average family -- $2,000 as opposed to $1,600 -- but "this is real money," Bush said. "'Two thousand dollars a year means a lot to my family. If we had this money, it would help us reach our goal of paying off our personal debt in two years' time,'" Bush quoted Steven Ramos as saying.

As always when it comes to these kinds of speeches, the night was filled with such inelegant flourishes -- the camera flash to the nun when he mentioned faith-based charities, or to Special Olympics silver medalist Windy Smith and the formerly pugilistic Democratic mayor of Philadelphia, John Street, who sat up with the first lady. Or the president's call to double the funding for the National Institutes of Health in honor of retiring Rep. Joe Moakley, D-Mass., who faces an untreatable form of leukemia.

Of the roughly 17 standing ovations Bush received, the one for Moakley was in the top half, enthusiasm-wise. It was not quite as enthusiastic as the one following Bush's cry that "the people of America have been overcharged and on their behalf, and I am here asking for a refund!" but it was more so than the one that followed his request that Congress give him fast-track trade-negotiating authority.

Bush also took a moment to address "the biggest test of our foresight and courage" -- reforming Medicare and Social Security. On Social Security, Bush pointed out that with the addition of his generation of ridiculously self-indulgent and obnoxious baby boomers to the Social Security rolls, the money will start drying up. Bush pledged the formation of a "presidential commission to reform Social Security," one to make recommendations by the fall based on three policies: returning Social Security to "sound financial footing"; preserving the "benefits of all current retirees and those nearing retirement"; and offering personal accounts to younger workers.

On Medicare reform, Bush pushed Congress to return to the recommendations made by the last such commission, helmed by Sens. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and John Breaux, D-La. That commission made some tough suggestions, ones that President Clinton threw out when he needed the support of a Democratic base after he got caught with that intern. The GOP congressional leadership was only too willing to forget, as well. "Now it is time to act," Bush said.

And the camera cut to Breaux, who had a prediction for the person behind him: "Not gonna happen," Breaux clearly enunciated. "Not gonna happen."

Regardless, Gerson's a master, and he crafted some pretty sentences. Here's one of the nicest passages: "An artist using statistics as a brush could paint two very different pictures of our country. One would have warning signs: increasing layoffs, rising energy prices, too many failing schools, persistent poverty, the stubborn vestiges of racism. Another picture would be full of blessings: a balanced budget, big surpluses, a military that is second to none, a country at peace with its neighbors, technology that is revolutionizing the world, and our greatest strength, concerned citizens who care for our country and for each other."

"Neither picture is complete in and of itself," Bush said. "And tonight I challenge and invite Congress to work with me to use the resources of one picture to repaint the other -- to direct the advantages of our time to solve the problems of our people."

The only clearly preposterous thing Bush said all night came when he brushed off those who criticize educational testing programs, like those in Texas, that end up with teachers "teaching to the test," instead of teaching the actual skills.

"Critics of testing contend it distracts from learning," Bush said. "They talk about 'teaching to the test.' But let us put that logic to the test. If you test children on basic math and reading skills, and you are 'teaching to the test,' you're teaching," he paused, "math and reading. And that's the whole idea." But this is a horrifyingly simple response to a legitimate concern over the Texas-style education reform he wants to bring to the rest of the nation.

Not that you could count on any serious challenge coming from the Democratic response, limply delivered by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and House Minority Leader Dick Gephart, D-Mo., whose speeches were distributed to the media at 9:05 p.m. EST, before Bush had said word one. Daschle hammered Bush for overly optimistic budget surplus projections.

"Nobody's crystal ball is that good," Daschle said. "Just ask Texas. Two years ago, using rosy forecasts, then-Governor Bush signed a budget that cut taxes by $1.8 billion. But his budget projections were wrong. Today Texas faces a serious budget shortfall." Bush's tax cut, Daschle said, "would bring back huge deficits, increase the national debt and put our economy back in the ditch."

"President Bush's numbers just don't add up," Gephardt said.

My bureau chief makes us keep the TV turned to the Fox News channel these days, kind of as shock therapy for those of us concerned that the Washington press corps is being too soft on Bush; even some of the most shameless Bush suck-ups seem down the middle after three hours of Fox. But I wish BET had a camera feed, because I sure would like to have seen more of the scowling members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Especially after Bush announced that Attorney General John Ashcroft -- he of the Bob Jones University honorary degree, the Southern Partisan interview and the demagoguery against a candidate for the federal judiciary who just happened to be black -- was put in charge of eliminating racial profiling.

And this is always the problem with President Bush. Sure, the packaging's tough to dislike when rarefied, focus-grouped and carefully modulated. But the product doesn't meet the advertising. He wasn't exactly decrying "the stubborn vestiges of racism" a year ago this month when he was trying to win the South Carolina GOP primary -- he was appealing to them. And so it's fine for him to call for "enacting fair and balanced election and campaign finance reforms" and a "Patients Bill of Rights" -- but let's see what he means by that.

Last time I checked, Bush fervently opposed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. Just a few weeks ago, Bush was having his henchman Karl Rove lean on the Republican House cosponsors of the "Patients Bill of Rights" to drop the bill. And having his Senate liaison, Frist, try to negotiate with Senate Democrats on the bill by cutting the Republican Senate cosponsor of the bill, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., out of it altogether, out of either presidential primary vengeance or intraparty insecurity.

"The agenda I have set before you tonight is worthy of a great country," Bush said. "Much has been given to us, and much is expected. Let us agree to bridge old divides. But let us also agree that our goodwill must be dedicated to great goals. Bipartisanship is more than minding our manners, it is doing our duty."

Let's see if he really means it. So far his manners have been about it. But hey, they've gotten him this far.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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