It's a Gusher! ... of Energy-Plan Catchphrases

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After launching his energy plan, the president tours a power plant in St. Paul

How do you know when the White House is trying to get a particular "message" out? Simple: just count the number of times Press Secretary Ari Fleischer or any other high-level official employs the same words or phrases in a single briefing, speech or interview.

Take, for example, the roll-out of the Bush Administration's much-heralded, already-maligned national energy policy. In his regular daily briefing on Wednesday, which was dominated by discussion of the energy plan, Fleischer repeatedly used the word "comprehensive," usually in sentences like, "And that's why, going back to September of last year, the President said that the United States needs a COMPREHENSIVE energy plan."

Moments later, Fleischer noted that "by... focusing on a COMPREHENSIVE solution, the President is confident that markets will see that more supply is on the way." For good measure, a few sentences later, Fleischer added that "Many of the other steps have an effect on prices over time, and that's why the President has had this focus on a COMPREHENSIVE plan." Fleischer went on to use the word "comprehensive" twelve more times before the briefing was over. (In Thursday's briefing, Fleischer was less profligate, referring to the President's "comprehensive" plan a mere 10 times.)

Late last week, in an interview with TIME, Energy Secretary Spence Abraham displayed a similarly limited vocabulary when it came to discussing the President's new plan. He kept talking about "balance" — how Bush and Cheney had come up with a "BALANCED plan," a "BALANCED solution" and a "BALANCED approach".

And both Fleischer and Abraham and a host of others went out of their way to remind reporters and viewers, again and again and again, that, as Abraham put it, "If we continue down the road of the LAST EIGHT YEARS, Americans can expect higher energy prices well into the future." Fleischer did it five times on Wednesday. But when he was asked how long it would be politically effective to blame Bill Clinton for today's "energy crisis", Fleischer pretended to be shocked at the suggestion. "It's not a question of blame," the spokesman insisted earnestly, twice, before casting blame one more time: "But our nation would have been better off if a COMPREHENSIVE national energy policy had gone into place years ago."

Forgive us for being cynical, but years of training — plus the "find" feature on Microsoft Word — led us to a startling hypothesis: the Bush White House had tested certain words, phrases and ideas in polls and focus groups before launching its national energy policy.

And, in fact, they have been. Jan van Lohuizen, a Washington pollster who worked for the Bush campaign and now polls for the Republican National Committee, has been testing feelings and reactions to the President's energy plan for weeks. It is true that this White House is less poll-driven than its predecessor, but the difference is getting harder and harder to see.

Other words in the White House's quiver of talking points include "leadership" and "modern." Because Bush may take hits for doing little to relieve the pinch voters feel at the pump, the White House hopes to counter by saying that Bush is showing LEADERSHIP by focusing on long term solutions to the nation's energy problems instead of political quick-fixes. Which is what Clinton would have done (and did, last year, when he tapped the Strategic Petroleum Reserve).

To counter the impression that increased supply of oil, coal and nuclear power might lead to environmental problems, the Bush White House wants voters to know that MODERN techniques have taken care of any fussy cleanliness issues and that through MODERN technologies most of the environmental downsides can be ameliorated.

The White House has crafted its roll-out of the energy plan as carefully as they have crafted their language. Three campaign-style events this week have been designed to send subliminal messages about balance and conservation. So in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he announced his plan Thursday, Bush toured a power plant at the cutting edge of "renewable" power production. Friday it was on to Conestoga, Pa. to visit a hydroelectric plant that has put measures in place to save the fish that spawn in the river.

The visual display was vintage work from a White House that has always paid close attention to the atmospherics of Bush's events. It was also more evidence that the White House is working hard to re-cast its image.

The nuanced approach angered some Republicans in the administration and some outside advisers. Emphasizing Bush's greener conservation measures, they say, means playing on the turf of environmentalists. If the message is that America must face up to its energy shortage, then the White House shouldn't shrink from that. Democrats are going to paint the administration as extremists on the environment anyway, this arguments goes, so why not try to use the weight of their attack against them? Bring out quotes from Al Gore's Earth in the Balance, talk about Jimmy Carter and paint the Democrats as environmental absolutists who are out of touch with reality.

This view did not prevail in internal White House strategy sessions and, given what Bush said in his speech today, we can see why. The slash-and-burn approach was exactly what Bush spoke out against. "Just as we need a new tone in Washington," said the President, "we also need a new tone in discussing energy and the environment; one that is less suspicious, less punitive, less rancorous. We've yelled at each other enough. Now it's time to listen to each other and to act."

Going into Thursday's announcement, the White House was girding for a negative reaction in the press. Inside the West Wing the complaining was hotter than ever that the administration was getting an unfair hearing before the report had even been released. Reporters were "living in the 70s," complained one White House official, referring to the last time the nation went through an energy crisis.

The press, officials contend, just doesn't realize that conservation alone cannot solve the problem. Every new policy position requires educating the press as well as the public, but the White House posture on the energy plan is that this task will be harder than ever. Their strategy? Repeat, repeat, repeat.