The President's plan

Posted: Mar 15, 2005 12:00 AM

The most recent approval-ratings slide suffered by President George W. Bush saw him dip a bit to around 50 percent. Political observers should be careful not to read too much into this minor decline in popularity.

 The Bush administration knows exactly what it's doing. The White House is more than happy to suffer from a brief, early second-term drop in the polls. They don't mind because they are creating what is shaping up to be a brilliant strategy in Congress.

 Yes, the president is stubbornly bulldozing ahead on his quest to modify the Social Security system. And yes, the proposal is so convoluted and full of holes that it has engendered criticism from Republicans as well as Democrats. Take this open GOP dissent as a tip-off that the whole passion play over Social Security reform may have been authored with a hidden method to the apparent madness.

 Even as the White House chases its tail and takes a lashing from top Republican brass over the reform policy, it is at the same time starting to cash in chits on other issues from Republicans -- and from many red-state Democrats who are scared about their re-election chances next year.

 A prime example was the recent passage of new sweeping bankruptcy laws. Such laws traditionally would have drawn near-lockstep opposition from Senate Democrats. Many pundits have widely condemned the huge number of Democrats that abandoned the party's position to vote with Bush.

 The truth is that many of these Democrats are understandably concerned with their own political self-preservation. The last thing they want is to limp into the 2006 election season having no message except "down with the president." Many have already tried that. It didn't work.

 Imagine being a Democrat that's running for re-election in a state where Bush won handily and the state legislature has swung solidly into the control of Republicans. There are plenty of states fitting that profile.

 In Oklahoma, Republicans made huge inroads into legislative power. Now the Democratic governor is trying desperately to survive by adopting GOP initiatives -- and even taking them to new heights.

 Fear among moderate Democrats soon to face re-election is more widespread and deep than is believed by many. This is especially true in the U.S. Senate. The fear is amplified by the partisan frenzy of many Republicans who in other circumstances might balk at some of the president's proposals. But since Bush is being attacked on Social Security, they feel the urgent need to support him as he takes it on the chin for his activist agenda.

 The truth is that no one in the White House really believed that Bush's first big proposal of his second term would get anywhere this early in the game. His line about his November win having earned him enough political capital to spend was true enough. But the real genius of his plan was the unstated intention to float a controversial measure that even he knew needed reworking before clear-thinking Republicans would seriously consider it. And at the same time, to employ the old Lyndon Johnson-style guilt trip to move both Republicans and Democrats to "do what's tough but right."

 Will the strategy work? It has so far. There will be more tests to come, no doubt. Some will take the form of old GOP-versus-Democrat litmus issues, such as some of the litigation reform measures being bandied about. But it would be a grand underestimation to assume that traditional coalitions, even on these controversial issues, will always hold together.

 More important, underestimating George W. Bush and Karl Rove, his master strategist, usually proves to be a fool's game.

 Many think Bush is struggling out of the gate of his second term just because the red-herring issue of Social Security reform isn't taking off. Those folks don't fully understand just how much the political landscape has changed -- and how well this White House knows it.

 Finally, a note on Dan Rather's retirement. I fully realize that conservatives have always loathed the veteran CBS-TV news anchor. I'll steer clear of his politics, and instead offer this small, personal observation.

 I never knew Rather, but I once had occasion to literally bump into him. It was in a roped-off seating section at the 1996 Republican convention that Newt Gingrich presided over. (At the time, I chaired Gingrich's political operations.)

 I have met many major news personalities over the years. Rather was by far the most polite and unassuming of them all.

 I've no doubt the whole "liberal bias" largely rings true. But I also suspect that at least part of the measure of a man is how he treats people when the spotlight isn't turned on. My guess is that there is a better side to Dan Rather than we've seen, or may ever see.

 Fire away with the dissenting e-mails -- I love to receive all e-mails -- but I'll wager I'm right.