The hocus-pocus of focus It's what you do when the polls plummet

William Safire

May 20, 1993|By William Safire

IN THE White House, when your ratings start to slip - especially when your "negatives" are abnormally high -- you put forward two reasons.

The first is that you are "failing to communicate." This admits no misdirection or wrongdoing -- merely that your press operation has flopped, or that the media are against you.

After this excuse draws a large hoot, you fall back on the second line of defense: What has been lacking is not content or action or direction, but "focus."

Focus is the hottest term in political discourse today. In Latin, it means "hearth, fireside," the place in the home where the family gathers, but in the lingo of today's spin doctors focus means to be "on the message" -- concentrating on the one or two simple issues that ignite a campaign.

When you are on the message, you can put up a sign that says "It's the (whatever the message is), Stupid." When you stray off the message, support erodes -- not because your strategy is wrong, you insist, but because you're putting so many necessary things on the public plate that people, uncomfortable with complexity, cannot digest it all.

This focus theory reached its elitist apogee when some academic argued that Ronald Reagan succeeded in his opening months because he was too dumb to govern and chew gum at the same, and that Bill Clinton was failing because he was too smart and complicated. His solution? Focus.

That's the mode the Clinton administration is in now. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen admits to a "diffusion of objective"; George Stephanopoulos talks of a "new phase"; the president asserts the need to "re-focus." The tumult of "bold experimentation," in the phrase of FDR's quoted in Mr. Clinton's inaugural, is out; focus is in.

I say this is all baloney not merely to be contrarian, which is always fun, but because conventionally wise focus theory fails to grasp the essence of what has emerged as the Clinton approach to governing: He is an activist on all fronts. He presses everywhere for openings that will enable him to get a purchase on the power to change the direction of American government.

Neither the Great Commoner nor the Great Communicator, Mr. Clinton may be remembered as the Great Tummler -- the quick-thinking, fast-talking national social director -- eager to espouse ideas that reverse the stodgy notion of individual responsibility, determined to engage central government in solving society's ills.

Consider the way a tie salesman sells ties. Not the way a jeweler sells jewelry, placing a single item down on black velvet for close study; on the contrary, a tie salesman spreads out an array of merchandise on the counter, and if it doesn't appeal, out comes another bunch of ties. How about this -- or this? You like this?

That's the Clinton way. He's adaptable and energetic; he can take rejection and keep coming back. If he were an old-time prizefighter, he would be Henry Armstrong, absorbing blows, swarming in, pressing the fight.

The hocus-pocus about focus misses all that. He is the prisoner of his own style. The moment he accepts more than a modicum of policy discipline or the orderliness of hierarchical management -- in that moment, Mr. Clinton would become Jimmy Carter or ersatz Dwight Eisenhower.

That tie-salesman style explains the four-month internal battle going on unseen and much-denied. Should he fight for his surprising tax-and-spend budget this year, putting off his health-care revolution until he wins that first battle -- or should he risk all by going for everything at once?

That's been answered. His budget chief and Treasury secretary, who urged "focus" on one budget at a time, were overwhelmed by Hillary Clinton and her health-care spending group, who made this year's budget proposal outdated on arrival.

President Clinton decided to put across-the-board domestic activism clearly ahead of focus. The current White House line about a new discipline responds willingly to criticism that misses the point.

Forget complaints about loss of focus by taking on too many issues; that's throwing Brer Rabbit into his beloved brier patch. Instead, conservatives should recognize two troubling themes where the Clintons are on their message: centralized power in the name of fairness and quotas in the name of diversity.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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