- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2001

In sharp contrast to the learning curve that turned Bill Clinton's first two years in office into a text book on presidential incompetence, George W. Bush is showing how to do it right from the beginning.

Unlike his ill-fated, immature predecessor, the much more disciplined Mr. Bush is personally reaching out to his adversaries early, focusing on his big agenda, staying on message and effectively changing the tone in Washington for the better.

To say Mr. Bush hit the ground running is an understatement. He had most of his Cabinet in place in his first week. He sent his education reform plan to Congress on his second day, receiving a generally friendly reaction from his Democratic opponents, even Ted Kennedy. He has been meeting Republican and Democratic congressional leaders and other key legislative players.

As was his style as governor of Texas, where he aggressively worked both sides of the aisle, Mr. Bush met with nearly 100 lawmakers in his first week, a third of them Democrats. One of them was California Rep. George Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, whom the president calls "Big George." He made sure Mr. Miller was at his education strategy meeting earlier this month, and last week included him in another meeting to tout his reform plan.

Mr. Miller is a staunch liberal. But Mr. Bush is pressing Democrats on an issue that was the No. 1 concern among voters last year. His plan would require more testing and accountability, and it would give states more freedom to innovate with federal funds by concentrating them in a few block grants. And he has sweetened the pot a little with a bit more funding for poorer schools, which will win a number of Democratic votes. But Mr. Bush is sticking to his strategic school choice proposal to "help children in persistently failing schools to go to another public, private or charter school," an idea the liberals hate but many poor inner-city minorities love.

How the fight over his voucher idea (though Mr. Bush never uses that word) will end, no one knows, but he is already sounding out key Democrats on possible compromise solutions to give kids trapped in bad schools a way out if they have not improved in three years.

This week, he began to move on his plan to deal with some of our worst social problems by channeling some funding into faith-based organizations. He also is moving quickly on his Medicare and prescription-drug reforms, another area where he is attracting bipartisan support, led by Sen. John Breaux, Louisiana Democrat.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Bush's plan for across-the-board income-tax cuts faced an uncertain fate. Now he has a key Democratic heavyweight, Georgia Sen. Zell Miller, cosponsoring it with Sen. Phil Gramm, Texas Republican. Mr. Miller's defection blew a huge hole in the opposition.

Sen. Miller's mission in the coming weeks, say White House strategists, is to get other Senate Democrats on board the tax-cut train, which has left the station and is speeding down the track. Alan Greenspan's testimony that tax cuts are urgently needed to resuscitate a rapidly sinking economy that is now "very close to zero" makes Mr. Miller's job a much easier sell.

With factory production falling, retail sales down, inventories way up, layoffs mounting and consumer confidence dropping, the smell of recession has lawmakers scared. Both parties know they will be vulnerable to a voter backlash in the 2002 elections if the economy does not turn around, which is why Mr. Bush is going to get a lot of support for his tax cuts. Republican vote-counters predict he will get at least 65 votes in the Senate.

What has congressional Democrats and most of the media buzzing this week is that Mr. Bush is turning out to be far more political adept at playing the legislative game than they thought he would be.

Instead of being pushed around by congressional barons, as Bill Clinton was for most of his presidency, Mr. Bush not is only setting the agenda but also is deftly picking up Democratic support.

He is aggressively using the powers of his office to lobby Democrats, who for the first time in years find they are getting some respect from the White House. Their phone calls are being returned, and they are at least getting a fair hearing from a president who is willing to share the credit for the programs he wants enacted. Mr. Bush shocked party leaders last week when he asked to address two Democratic congressional retreats, something no Republican president has done in decades.

It is suddenly dawning on a lot of people in this town that the Republicans control both the White House and, however narrowly, the Congress, and that means a lot of GOP reforms are going to be enacted this year. Mr. Bush is writing a new presidential textbook on how to get things done not by fighting his political adversaries as Al Gore promised to do, but by reaching out across the aisle to find areas of agreement on common ground.

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