The Bush Team: Losing Control of the Spin

  • Share
  • Read Later

President Bush in a meeeting with Republican House Leaders

Karen Hughes didn't like what she was hearing. Sitting in the Roosevelt Room of the West Wing on the morning of June 21, she listened with pursed lips as Nick Calio, the White House legislative director, insisted that President Bush should threaten to veto the patients' bill of rights--legislation aimed at protecting people from the bureaucratic whims of profit-driven HMOs. The bill is badly flawed, Calio argued, and the V word is the only way to force Congress to make it more to Bush's liking. Hughes jumped into the fray. "Once we say veto," she replied, "that's all anyone's going to hear." To Hughes, the counselor responsible for the words Bush says and the image he presents--promising to veto a popular bill was sure to be a p.r. disaster. Bush had to be for the people, not the HMOs. "This will hurt us," she warned.

Hughes is the adviser closest to Bush--she has been at his side since he first ran for Texas Governor in 1994--but she doesn't always prevail. She lost the battle with Calio, and the President issued his veto threat the next day. That evening, Hughes got a call from her deputy, Dan Bartlett, who had surveyed the networks' coverage of Bush's statement. "Just like we predicted," he said, sighing. "We got killed tonight."

Bush's threat made him an easy target. It was seen as yet another example of a President working on behalf of corporations instead of average Americans. Which is why Hughes spent much of last week laboring to mitigate the damage. "We can't just be against something. We have to be for something," she told colleagues in a White House meeting last Tuesday. With Democrats in control of the Senate and moderate Republicans lining up with them, passage of a generous patients'-rights bill was inevitable. Pressed by Hughes and others, Bush threw his support behind a House alternative giving patients a limited right to sue HMOs in state court--something he had long opposed. "This legislation...will make a difference in people's lives," he enthused at a photo op staged by Hughes. By Friday night, when the Senate passed its bill 59-36, the veto threat was still the official position, but White House aides were signaling that Bush was willing to compromise further. "He really wants to sign something and take it off the table," said one. "And when he does, the American people will give him a lot of the credit."

That would be a welcome change. Despite a number of recent victories--signing a $1.35 trillion tax cut, garnering overwhelming bipartisan support for his education-reform package, and winning decent marks for his first major foreign trip--Bush is slipping in the polls and losing support among independents. Almost 2 to 1, Americans trust the Democrats, not the President, to write a patients' bill of rights into law, according to an nbc News/Wall Street Journal poll released last week. On other issues Americans say they care most about--the environment, the economy, Medicare, education, energy, Social Security--they have more faith in Democrats than in Bush and the Republicans.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans are eyeing next year's elections and getting nervous. Moderates are especially worried that on the environment, tax cuts, gasoline and electricity prices and now health care, Bush comes across as the servant of Big Business. The tipping point, some say, was his energy plan, which called for massive increases in production--oil wells, coal- and nuclear-fired power plants--to meet a crisis that many people aren't sure is real. "A lot of the unfortunate negative perceptions are driven by the energy issues," says Maine Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Republican. In a series of rebukes to Bush, the G.O.P.-led House has in the past few weeks rejected his plans to expand drilling in national-monument lands, the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes. And last week a Senate committee voted unanimously to spend nearly $300 million more for conservation next year than Bush wanted. "We have to take care of ourselves," says a Republican leadership aide.

Many senior White House officials dispute the suggestion that Bush has an image problem--and brandish polls that show him holding solid, if not spectacular, approval ratings--but Hughes isn't one of them. "Karen gets it," says a G.O.P. consultant who has met with several top Bush aides. "A lot of the others don't." Hughes was the first top aide to recognize that the President was in trouble on the environment. She convened a special strategy meeting in April, declared that green issues "are killing us" and proposed a series of events and photo ops to highlight the President's love of the land and commitment to conservation. Hughes is so insistent on the subject that Bush has started teasing her. When she presses him to do an environmental event, he looks at her out of the corner of his eye and asks, "You're one of the lima green beans, aren't you?"

It's one thing to recognize a problem, another to fix it--and the photo ops Hughes prescribes can't mend Bush's image if his policies don't find a middle ground. Hughes insists his problem is one of perception, not substance. She is so loyal that during the campaign she frustrated reporters who felt her single-minded determination to stay on message often kept her from saying anything useful or interesting. She has overseen a White House communications shop--including press secretary Ari Fleischer's office--that since January has operated largely on the principle that the less information given the press, the better. Since the Jeffords crisis, however, Hughes' team has become more helpful--both to reporters and to Republican staff on Capitol Hill. And the team has begun to rethink its habit of placing Bush in tightly controlled events designed to make him look presidential.

  1. Previous
  2. 1
  3. 2