Compromise strategy gives Bush winning air

Tactic on education: aim high, then settle

April 24, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - When he talks about reforming the public schools, President Bush can sound tough and unwavering.

"Some principles cannot be compromised," he said in his weekly radio address Saturday. "Few things are as important as giving all our children the tools of learning."

But behind the scenes, Bush has been quite compromising on education. He has given up his demand for private school vouchers. And he has shown a willingness to bend to conservatives who complain that his plan for annual tests would let Washington dictate how states should design such tests.

Even so, Bush seems likely to claim a victory this year on education reform, which he has deemed a top priority and which the Senate is scheduled to take up this week. Don't think the White House will hold back on celebrating even if central elements of his plan are abandoned or watered down.

Call it vintage Bush.

If any strategy served him well as governor of Texas, it was Bush's tendency to overshoot - to call for more than he could realistically achieve on an issue, then do some fist-pumping even if only portions of his proposal were enacted.

Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas government professor who closely followed Bush's governorship, recites Bush tactics as if they were taken from a textbook.

"Set out a series of goals, announce there will be a period of give and take, engage in it, cut a deal, declare victory," Buchanan said.

Bush now seems to be following that pattern on education. The goal setting phase was during the campaign, when he laid out a plan to make schools more accountable by requiring annual reading and math tests in grades three through eight and linking federal funding to performance. Parents with children in failing schools could also use federal vouchers to send their students to private schools.

Three days after taking office, Bush outlined his plan again at a White House ceremony. But he also quietly began to hint of a give-and-take phase.

"I'm going to listen to suggestions from folks," the president said. "If somebody's got a better idea, I hope they bring it forward."

For several weeks, the White House has been negotiating with members of Congress, in pursuit of a compromise that would resemble Bush's plan - enough for Bush to tout it as his achievement.

Officeholders everywhere, of course, tend to cut their losses to achieve a partial victory. But unlike most others, Bush has made a habit of focusing intensely on only a handful of pet issues and is mindful that failure on any one might deflate his entire agenda.

Where a politician with a more crowded agenda could afford to suffer a setback or two, Bush is under pressure to show success on a leading priority, such as education.

Buchanan notes that Bush delighted in deploying his strategy in Texas, where as governor he built a reputation as a deft compromiser who forged close working relationships with Democrats. "He tried it down here, and it worked for him," the professor said.

To the surprise of some, Bush until recently refused to apply his strategy to another top agenda item - his proposed 10-year, $1.6 trillion tax cut. Bush kept insisting on the $1.6 trillion figure until the Senate acted to scale it back.

Bush's persistence might have been an attempt to shore up support among conservatives early in his term. Nevertheless, Bush has begun to show willingness to budge on the tax cut, softening his tone and saying he would be open to a "trigger" - a device that could pull back tax breaks if budget surpluses do not materialize.

Congress seems likely to give Bush a tax cut of about $1.3 trillion.

While the president has not publicly accepted a lower figure, White House aides are laying the groundwork to claim victory. They note that Democrats have gradually accepted ever-larger tax cut proposals and that Congress seems poised to enact the biggest such cut in two decades.

But it is on education that the president has stuck most closely to the tactics he cultivated in Texas - laying out his plan, hinting early that he would be open-minded, then working to compromise. In recent days, the president's advisers have been trying to hammer out a final deal with Senate Democrats, led by Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Already, to gain Democratic support, the White House has agreed to drop its call for private school vouchers. It has settled instead on the idea of giving parents the option of sending children to other public schools and of granting parents federal dollars to use for private tutoring.

Separating Democrats and the White House now is money.

Kennedy and his Democratic colleagues are calling for increasing education funding by nearly $250 billion over the next decade, about 10 times the increase Bush has proposed. The extra money would be spent on school construction, reducing class size and improving schools with predominantly disadvantaged students.

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