- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 11, 2006

OK, let’s talk turkey. Recovering from a 36 percent approval rating is tough, but here is the prescription for President Bush. If followed, this approach might just reverse the trend line, bring his base and moderates back and reaffirm a commitment to Reaganlike policies. Lame ducks don’t tend get spry fast, but here’s the plan.

(1) Highlight the extraordinary performance of the U.S. economy, aided by federal monetary policy. What numbers may hold attention? How about: “Last week, jobless claims declined by 5,000… ” while “people continuing to collect state jobless benefits fell to 2.44 million.” Those are the lowest numbers since February 2001, according to the Labor Department.

And corporate payrolls? The best estimate is at least 190,000 last month, topping “the strongest quarter for hiring in more than a year.” So, month on month, unemployment is hard down, while job growth is rising. To this, add strong real estate, manufacturing and service markets.

And productivity growth? How about: Better than Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush the elder or Bill Clinton over a similar period. In 2005, business sector productivity grew 2.7 percent. The U.S. economy’s overall output rose by 4 percent. Hours engaged by employees rose 1.3 percent. Reality Check: 2005 completed a three-year stretch of productivity averaging 3.9 percent, better even than the 2.7 percent productivity average from 1995 and 2001.

In a phrase, “It’s the Economy, Remember?”

Of course, when economic news is bad, it leads. When good news appears, it seems somehow not worth reporting. But homes are worth more than at any time in U.S. history. The job market is thriving. America is on the move. That should be the top talking point.

(2) Iraq needs to become one of many issues, not the issue. The fast combat win was hard; the slow peace is harder. We need to be in overdrive to get the Iraqis governing themselves. We also need to do a little downshifting at home. We need regular reports of progress. We do not need constant and repetitive reminders that violent, uncivilized radicals are just that. As our benchmarks are achieved, as Iraqis gain control over their destiny, and as proportional drawdowns occur, we should describe the changes.

U.S. troops deserve total support abroad and at home. But let’s stop the hang-dog business about re-explaining the mission, and just Get-‘R-Done and come home. Iraq is an important issue. It is not the only issue.

(3) Let’s reassert some real fiscal discipline. Iraq costs have reduced overall discretionary spending, the money left after “federal entitlements” swallows most tax revenue. That said, there are ways to reduce spending and give fiscal conservatives something to hang their hat on.

How about offering a conditional drawdown schedule (formalizing the informal promise for 2006), and tying that schedule to Defense Department spending cuts and a one-time middle-class tax cut? Woven into the tradeoff could be a one-year tax credit for returning veterans. The message: Fewer troops abroad, reduced drain on the federal budget, more prosperity at home and keeping faith with our troops.

Reagan would never counsel runaway costs. Neither can a modern Republican that expects to keep his or her principles, self-respect or seat in Congress. Without fiscal discipline, prices and interest rates invariably rise. Real wages and things like house values fall, heaving under the weight of inflation.

We have been there before, let’s not go there again. That was Jimmy Carter and stagflation We can do without that.

(4) Let’s get serious about six other issues that matter greatly to the American people: illegal immigration, energy independence, border security, health-care innovation, drug abuse and, yes, the environment. On these issues, the choice is simple: Lead or lose by not leading. This fleet of freight trains is bearing down fast. They will plow through Republicans in the next two election cycles like tornadoes through a tree line if we ignore them. We can look the other way, or we collect ourselves and lead.

In the end, leadership is what matters. Voters have trusted Republicans to do the right thing. Let’s do it. They are ready for the big jolt, new policies, new direction, new toughness, new innovation, the return to all-American, long-range thinking, a la Ronald Reagan. They are ready for a party that takes risks to protect the future. If there is no jolt and new direction, expect a lot of them to bolt, or just sit home.

The real reason for the president’s 36 percent approval rating is not Democrats, not disagreement with tough, new, innovative White House policies, not the cloaked nature of wartime policy making or execution. It is the slow drift from moorings that have kept our Ship of State steady for decades.

The White House must pull tight on that line. We need better communication of the good news, and policy leadership with real traction. Boldness will change the approval ratings, even if the president does not read them.

Robert Charles, former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, 2003-2005, is president of the Charles Group. He worked in the Reagan White House, 1981-83, the George H.W. Bush White House 1992-93, and for the Republican Congress, 1995-99.

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