U.S. President George W. Bush continues his attempt to make friends and influence important constituencies. He has spent more time with the Congressional Black Caucus than with the Republican leadership. He has traveled to schools to promote his education priorities. He has been to small businesses explaining his tax-cutting plans. He visited military bases to build rapport with the troops and discuss his plans for national defense.

The public likes what they see, so far. The Bush approval rating has jumped from the high 40s just before his inauguration to a very respectable 65 percent favorable to 32 percent unfavorable. Any politician will revel in those numbers.

Bush’s problems are totally different from those of any president in the past century. He has surpluses to work with — plenty of money to spend on his favorite programs, enough to deliver his promised tax cut and still appear to be strengthening the social safety net. His problem is to restrain the spending instincts of Congress; not to push them for more dollars for his programs.

The top priority of this administration is to cut taxes. He recently sent his aggressive tax plan to Congress after selling it for almost a year in the campaign and in the early days of his presidency. His plan, as introduced, calls for a 10-year, $1.6 trillion tax cut. The question is not whether there will be a tax cut, but how much and in what manner they will be slashed.

Since day one, the problem for the president is keeping the cut within reason and within the limits that the economic circumstances of the country can stand. A day before Bush made his proposal, his Republican House leader, Dick Armey of Texas, told his caucus members, “Returning $1.6 trillion or even $2.6 trillion to the people who earned the money is not unreasonable.” That sentiment, rather than economic caution, has defined the tone of the debate. The great tax-cut debate of 2001 has turned into a bidding war. When it is over, sometime in the summer, taxes will be cut for all Americans and many people will claim credit for the windfall. The tax-cut story will be a long one.

I can remember when the former president just faded off the scene on his successor’s inaugural day and disappeared into the oblivion of public life. President George Bush did it eight years ago. It was weeks before we even knew that he went to Houston.

But not President Bill Clinton! In the four weeks since he left office, he has logged more centimeters of news and more hours of television talk-show gossip time than any news figure, except for his successor, George W. Bush. And by now, Clinton, his friends and his loyal Democratic supporters wish that his exit were more like Bush’s escape to Houston.

It has been many kilometers of bad road for the Arkansas traveler since he left the White House and moved to his new home in Chappaqua, New York. Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich is a story that won’t go away. It has stirred the passions of his old enemies in the Congress and has embarrassed his loyalists. Congressional hearings on Clinton matters are making headlines and sound bites — even pushing the new president’s new tax plan, his military strategy and his appointments into the background.

The pardon story has so many tabloid-style angles that it won’t go away quickly, especially now that the U.S. district attorney in New York has begun a criminal investigation of the matter. Her action will deprive the congressional Clinton hunters the availability of Denise Rich (Marc’s well-funded former wife). She took the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination when invited to a House committee to testify. With the criminal investigation ongoing, the Justice Department is unlikely to provide the grant of immunity that would allow her to be compelled to testify.

The Democratic Party’s ability to regroup and reorganize for their future is compounded by Clinton’s problems. He had been counted on to be a major figure in the struggle to regain power. He has been the top fundraiser in the party. He has been a masterful spokesman on issues. He is a super strategist. But his fall into the morass of public disfavor has sharply curtailed his value to the party.

The other potential “outside spokesman and leader,” former Vice President Al Gore, doesn’t cut the mustard either. His problems are more party-related rather than in the public arena. In the months since his concession to Bush, the recriminations toward Gore and his advisers have mushroomed. He ran a lousy campaign, his critics say. He threw away the Democrats chances to retain the presidency and he provided no boost for Democratic congressional candidates, thus costing the Democrats their chance to regain control of the House of Representatives. His old best friends now seem to be his harshest critics.

As always, there are disagreements over policy within the Democratic Party. A major portion of the party believes that Gore’s renunciation of “New Democrat” values (that means moderate to conservative) cost him the election. It was that set of values that Clinton won on in 1992, and on which he governed successfully. Gore pollsters counter that it was only his populist themes that seemed to work with the electorate. Gore personally seems to think that his demise was caused by the drag of Clinton’s personal immorality. This feeling has caused extremely bad feelings between the two and caused Gore to lose focus during the campaign.

But for whatever reason, Gore lost and the Democrats made only marginal gains in the Congress. They control nothing in Washington and their control of governors’ offices and state legislatures has slipped badly over the past decade. They need to get on track and start winning elections.

Next year will be a big electoral year and they simply have to get their act together. The key problems will be candidate recruitment and fundraising — a pair of problems that go hand in hand. With the Republicans in control in Washington, the special-interest money will go in their direction rather than to the minority Democrats. Without the promise of full funding, attractive candidates will wait until better times.

This will provide a major challenge for new Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. He will need to pull a few rabbits out of the hat to satisfy the skeptics who question his closeness to Clinton and his concentration on fundraising.

I’m prepared to bet on McAuliffe. Having worked for a similarly criticized chairman, Bob Strauss, I know that fundraising is the tool that makes everything else possible — and questionable personal associations and friendships soon become minor distractions.

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