In power just three weeks, President George W. Bush and his rapid-response team are scrambling to fix their mistakes as quickly as they make them.
An embattled Cabinet nominee is quickly cut lose. An AIDS office, seemingly gutted, is suddenly restored. And a muted press secretary finds the right words and feeds them to his boss, giving the White House the upper hand on a popular patients’ rights initiative.
“These guys are amazing,” Democratic consultant Jim Duffy said. “They seem to catch their mistakes and fix them before the damage sets in.”
Bush’s smooth start is a stark contrast to the harried first days of the Clinton administration, when the former Arkansas governor stumbled through a series of public relations crises. Bush’s new White House staff makes plenty of mistakes, but they’re not compounding them, as Clinton did, with harsh denials or tortured explanations, according to Democratic and Republicans observers.
The first test came shortly before Inauguration Day, when reports surfaced that Bush’s choice as labor secretary had housed an illegal immigrant. Linda Chavez had not disclosed the information to the Republican team, angering Bush, who made it clear he would not defend her.
She withdrew her nomination just three days after the immigrant issue surfaced.
That was a warm-up for more White House stumbles. The latest example occurred this week, when Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, told USA Today that White House offices on AIDS and civil rights would be scuttled. Within hours of the newspaper’s publication, the tempest was tabled when press secretary Ari Fleischer said Card was wrong.
Skeptical Democrats don’t know whether Card was mistaken or merely sacrificed in a sudden policy reversal to iron out a political problem. Either way, they were impressed.
“The Bushies respond so quickly and don’t worry about how to spin it out. They say, ‘We screwed up. We’re going to fix it.’ They’re more into getting about their work than worrying about how the news will play out that day,” Duffy said.
Fleischer ventured into troubled waters Tuesday when he was peppered with questions about Bush’s policy on patients’ rights. White House advisers had worked behind the scenes to stall a bipartisan measure gaining steam on Capitol Hill, and Fleischer knew the arm-twisting would dominate news coverage unless something was done.
He left the briefing and updated Bush, who provided another story line just 30 minutes later.
“We can’t have a patients’ bill of rights that encourages and invites all kind of lawsuits,” Bush told reporters, outlining his problems with the bipartisan bill.
Scott Reed, a Republican consultant, said Bush is doing all the small things that avoid big problems.
When Democrats started attacking the president’s US$1.6 trillion tax-cutting package as too large, Reed said, Bush allies on Capitol Hill were told to start talking about an even larger tax cut. That allowed Bush to stand up against a tax cut larger than his own “and now he’s positioned right down the middle without shaving his tax cut a dime,” Reed said.
John Ashcroft’s nomination for attorney general was under intense attack from Democrats who said he was too conservative. Ashcroft told senators in four days of confirmation hearings that he would serve “all the people” and enforce the nation’s laws despite “personal preferences.”
In particular, he pledged not to seek a Supreme Court reversal of a woman’s right to abortion.
The soothing words took some steam out of Democratic efforts to cast Ashcroft as a conservative zealot.
“It won’t always be this easy for Bush,” said Duffy, the Democrat. “But, so far, he’s pushed all the right buttons to make sure he’s controlling his own fate — even when he messes up.”