- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 31, 2000

The national news media did a job on George W. Bush last week, raking him over the coals for mispronouncing a word or two and for not being clear when he talked to reporters about his tax-cut plan.

Cheered by Al Gore's expected convention bounce, some news-starved reporters covering the Bush campaign saw their chance and went for the jugular. He was on the defensive, had lost his self-confidence and was now on the ropes, they said.

To be sure, the Texas governor wasn't providing them with much in the way of news, and a hungry news media can turn adversarial and even mean. Little things voters see as irrelevant such as misreading "hostile" for "hostage" are blown into a major story. It was reminiscent of the so-called "gaffes" the press corps used against Ronald Reagan slip-ups that were little noted nor long remembered. People were listening to the message and not the occasional blooper.

I have covered many presidential campaigns over the last three decades and have never ceased to be amazed at how Washington reporters can focus on trivia instead of the major issues the candidates may be talking about.

Nevertheless, Rule No. 1 in presidential campaigning is that the press has to be fed daily or they will invent their own stories. Rule No. 2 is that the candidate must speak clearly at all times or else appear uninformed and unprepared for high office. Last week, while attempting to defend his tax-cut plan, Mr. Bush's rhetoric was murky, to say the least. Here's a transcription of one part of his comments:

"I've got to do a better job of making it clear," he began, "that starting with a baseline of about $1.9 trillion over the next 10 years, the budgets will increase by about $3.3 trillion. And yet we've still got another $2.3 trillion of surplus. I think that when people understand that we've got a lot of money that we'll apply to different programs, that the tax-relief package will become even more, people will buy into the tax-relief package even more."

Not exactly the epitome of clarity.

Of course, Mr. Bush is saying that even with the government spending nearly $1.9 trillion a year, which will rise to $3 trillion over the next decade, the budget surplus over this period will still be a whopping $2.3 trillion over and above the government's needs.

Surely, Mr. Bush is saying some of that money can be prudently returned to all working Americans in the form of lower taxes to keep the economy healthy and growing, without unbalancing the budget and without in any way shortchanging needed federal programs.

Well, it didn't come out that way in the back of the plane although on the stump, his speech lays out his tax-cut proposals in clear, less-detailed language that voters can understand.

But there are many ways to get a candidate's message out, and Mr. Bush has not up to this point used all of the tools at his disposal. A few suggestions:

Mr. Bush still needs to boil down his tax plan to a few tight, comprehensive phrases. In his well-received convention speech, he said he did not think anyone should pay more than one-third of his income in taxes. Not only do the polls show the vast majority of voters agree with that view, that's what his plan, in part, would do. Say it.

The job of a presidential candidate is to set forth the overall policy objectives he wants to achieve. Mr. Bush has been doing that in his speeches, interviews and daily press conferences. But there are finer details, arguments and explanations best left to policy advisers, and it is here the Bush campaign has been at its weakest.

The tight circle of aides that Mr. Bush has campaigning with him led by Karen Hughes, his communications chief cannot offer the broader policy points that the campaign press corps, which is largely untutored in policy issues, needs to report in an easily understandable way. A frequent complaint of reporters who have been covering his campaign thus far is that there rarely are policy people traveling with Mr. Bush whom they can talk to on the plane or at campaign stops.

Mr. Bush would be better served if he took one or more of his economic advisers Larry Lindsey, John Cogan or Martin Anderson of the Hoover Institution along with him to explain the details of the tax-cut proposals to the traveling press corps. He would also be in a stronger position to have experts shoot down Mr. Gore's often truth-stretching charges on a day-to-day basis.

If reporters traveling with Mr. Bush had daily access to some of his policy advisers, there would be more of an opportunity for his message to get out in a clearer, more authoritative way. And, I might add, less reason or time for the press corps to focus on irrelevant stories.

Karen Hughes, strategist Karl Rove and veteran press secretary Ari Fleischer are good at what they do. But when you want to talk about complicated tax policies, defense readiness, school-choice vouchers or health-care issues, top policy professionals carry much more weight than they do.

Mr. Bush needs to make more of his advisers available on the campaign trail. If he does, his press coverage will improve dramatically.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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