'War room' rallies support for Clinton economic plan Campaign tactics adapted to 1993

July 29, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Inside a converted White House conference room that has a feverish buzz of activity and a growing sense of urgency, a fax that ordinarily would have been filed in a trash can instead became a presidential introduction yesterday.

The fax in question was a run-of-the-mill news release from Michael Walsh, chairman and chief executive of Tenneco Inc., endorsing President Clinton's economic plan. In the White House "war room" its potential was spotted immediately.

The war room, or "boiler room," as some call it, is where veterans of the Clinton presidential campaign are trying to shape public opinion about the president's $500 billion deficit reduction package. They believe its fate in Congress next week will determine whether Mr. Clinton's presidency rises or falls -- and they are using the same tactics to pressure Congress for final passage that worked so well in the 1992 campaign.

Using corporate chiefs

One of the 1993 versions of the campaign tactics is to use business executives to tout the president's plans to reduce the deficit. People like Mr. Walsh, whose own taxes will increase and whose Texas-based energy and shipbuilding company will be directly hit, but who still maintains that Mr. Clinton's budget package is in the national interest.

Yesterday, Rahm I. Emanuel, one of the war room's planners, took the Tenneco release to White House chief of staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty. When he returned, he showed it to two other war room lieutenants, David Dreyer and Paul Begala, and said, "Mack wants him [Mr. Walsh] to read it."

Three hours later, at a news conference in which Mr. Clinton and Vice President Al Gore were flanked by 50 supportive corporate chief executives, Mr. Walsh did just that -- and then introduced Mr. Clinton with a smile and a flourish.

Just another day's work for the war room.

Rules of the game

Last year, candidate Bill Clinton had great success with a youthful, aggressive campaign team that sought to avoid any of the mistakes made by recent Democratic presidential candidates.

One cardinal rule was to not let any charge by opponents go unanswered -- even for a single news cycle.

Another was to keep "on-message," which meant having Clinton campaign officials and their allies speak from the same script each day.

A third was to keep hammering at the same important points over and over again.

A little more than two weeks ago, top Clinton administration officials realized that on their single most important initiative -- the budget package -- the administration was following none of these strategies. And the war room was born.

Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger C. Altman, who runs the war room on a day-to-day basis, said yesterday that the razor-thin margins by which Mr. Clinton's economic plan passed Congress on the first go-around convinced White House officials that they needed to get back to fundamentals.

'All-out assault'

"We needed an all-out assault -- the stakes were enormous," Mr. Altman said in an interview yesterday. "We hadn't done as good a job as we could have maintaining support for the plan."

Specifically, he and other officials said, the president and his aides fiddled around and paid attention to other things while Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and other Republicans crisscrossed the country and the C-SPAN airwaves denouncing Mr. Clinton's package as a return to failed Democratic "tax and spend" policies.

The war room was set up to counter this perception, not to directly lobby members of Congress. That function still belongs primarily to congressional liaison official Howard Paster, who relies on heavyweights such as Mr. Gore, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, Budget Director Leon E. Panetta -- all former members of Congress -- and the president himself to personally lobby wavering members.

On Tuesday, the war room coordinated 23 surrogate speakers, most of them Cabinet officials, who went out into the country to rally support of Mr. Clinton's plan.

Yesterday, the war room helped organize Mr. Clinton's afternoon news conference with the chief executives and arranged an interview with Mr. Clinton for media representatives from Texas -- one of a series of such interviews.

The war room also issued yesterday's "talking points" for administration officials planning to be interviewed or to speak in public to their constituents back home.

In the end, however, the success of the war room in galvanizing public opinion behind the president's plan probably will depend less on gimmicks and more on how well it helps communicate the plan's specifics to the public.

So far, the president and his aides have taken heart from the fact that some anecdotal evidence and some public opinion surveys show that the more Americans know about this plan, the more likely they are to support it.

'Mass confusion'

"There is mass confusion about what's in it," Mr. Altman said yesterday. "Many taxpayers who've heard they are going to pay higher taxes really aren't. Only four percent of small businesses will pay higher taxes -- 50 percent will get a cut.

"There will be $500 billion in deficit reduction, spending cuts and spending increases are equal and . . . 80 percent of new taxes will be paid by families making more than $200,000 a year."

In addition, Mr. Altman noted, the president's plan is the only option on the table.

"The polls show the [voters] have mixed views on the president's program. They have negative views on the Republican alternative -- to the extent they know about it. What the public will not stand for is doing nothing."

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