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National Perspective

Washington's New Resident Clings to His 'Outsider' Image

Bush's tactic is not without risks--bashing the Beltway could anger his targets and undercut his vow to tone down the rhetoric.

March 13, 2001|JAMES GERSTENZANG and EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

CRAWFORD, Texas — In Washington, barely a cross word will cross his lips when President Bush speaks in public about the nation's capital--its politics, its people, its personality, Democrats and all. He is working very hard at getting along.

But just listen to him when he's west of the Potomac. The tenor shifts. An undercurrent of disdain creeps in. He's ready to bash with the best of them, or at least disabuse anyone of the idea he may actually like life in Washington:

"I appreciate the fact that you've given me a chance to get outside of Washington--remember where I came from, to come to the heartland of America," he said Friday in Sioux Falls, S.D. "It's important for all of us in the federal government to continue to come to the heartland, because it's the land of good heart and the land of common-sense people.

"The problem is, some of the folks in Washington are used to spending orgies," he added. By that he meant Congress.

In short, the hinterland is everything Washington is not.

A Place Out of Touch

He spent roughly $185 million to get to Washington, and worked at it for two years. Now, Bush--a resident of the White House for seven weeks, but as the son of a president and vice president not a total stranger to its ways--is portraying himself as a beleaguered outsider. His Washington, as presented in speeches in the Dakotas, Iowa, Nebraska, and south to Arkansas, Georgia and Louisiana in recent weeks, is a place utterly out of step with mainstream America.

There is convention, if not perfect political pitch, to this approach. It has been followed by other former governors who moved to the White House and set themselves apart from what they disdainfully portrayed as the established culture of the nation's capital--but while there tried to get along with its practitioners too.

Indeed, the only president in the last quarter-century who did not begin his term this way was the 41st president, George Bush, this President Bush's father. To one degree or another, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton each worked assiduously on the outsider image.

But Bush faces two obstacles: For one, he has put a high premium on his ability to get along with the other power centers in Washington, rather than antagonize them. For another, to succeed, this approach demands an underlying grass-roots anger with Washington, rather than what some experts see as the current chronic disdain mined by late-night comedians.

So he could find that it eventually backfires by antagonizing potential allies in Congress. And while it draws whoops of delight from the thousands of people who have packed his campaign-style rallies during his heartland travels over the last two weeks, it may not resonate with the vast throngs that pay little heed to Washington until crises arise, and are not overly upset with the capital.

"I suppose there's never any harm in trying to put a little anti-Washington populism in your repertoire. But it is largely inconsistent with his promise during the campaign to change the tone," said Thomas Mann, a senior member of the government studies team at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

And it goes beyond the gap between the language Bush is using on the road and his appeal for comity in Washington.

"There's a real disconnect between the rhetoric of bipartisanship and the policies that mean party polarization," Mann said.

A recent sampling of Bush on the road--as he made beyond-the-Beltway forays that eventually brought him to his ranch near here for a weekend retreat--shows him at a small-business round-table near Pittsburgh, referring to himself as "a freshman," much like the first-term member of Congress who was in the audience.

He promises more money for public schools, but emphasizes his reliance on local control. He defends his budget priorities in part by criticizing the conduct of the debate in Washington.

"Now the debate always seems to come out of Washington that, if you have tax relief, somebody is not going to get their Medicare check. Or if you have tax relief, somebody is not going to get a Social Security check. . . . And what I want to do is to remind Americans . . . that the surplus is your money; it is not the government's money."

Is all this what the public wants to hear?

Not necessarily, says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which keeps tabs on evolving public opinion and the attention the public is paying to Washington issues.

Bush's travels have drawn more attention to the tax plan than he would have earned had he remained in Washington and lobbied Congress directly, Kohut said. "But I don't think that going out and hitting Washington in the heartland is especially a good strategy. This is not 1994, when people were outraged and ready to put pressure on Washington to make big changes."

Pressuring Congress

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