For president, the campaign goes on

Published January 21, 2005

WASHINGTON - At first glance, it looks as if President Bush is headed for rough sledding in his second term.

His proposals face mounting opposition, even from his own party. His tax overhaul has been postponed and seems to have been scaled back. His plan for Social Security investment accounts has been criticized because it might require tax hikes. Some Republicans warn that it's a risky political move because Democrats can defeat the plan.

Rep. Bill Thomas, Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said partisan fighting will render Social Security reform a "dead horse." Rep. Clay Shaw, former chairman of the House Social Security subcommittee, said Bush will have his hands full just with the Republicans.

"We're going to really have to hold our party together," Shaw said.

But don't underestimate the president and the people who work for him. They honed their skills during the re-election campaign and will be using the same techniques to sell Bush's initiatives.

The president and his aides realize that governing is really just a perpetual campaign. To pass a major bill in Congress, they'll need the same public support they needed to win the election.

The ad blitz already has begun. A pro-Bush group is airing TV ads that say private accounts will make Social Security stronger. AARP is leading the opposition with newspaper ads that say the plan is a risky venture.

The debate will get louder as Congress gets closer to a vote. The ads will come fast and furious. Michael Tanner, who follows Social Security for the libertarian Cato Institute, jokes that you might even see an ad from "Swift Boat Veterans for Social Security Reform."

Bush already has been on the campaign trail for his plan. Last week, he hosted a "conversation on Social Security Reform" with workers and employers. The event was really an infomercial, a well-orchestrated media event gushing with praise for his plan.

Watch for Bush and his surrogates to campaign with the same energy they used in Ohio and Florida. Just as they calculated the key counties to winning the election, they will identify the wavering lawmakers, have Bush and his surrogates visit their districts and try to enlist voters for a full-court press.

Shaw, a Fort Lauderdale Republican, said Bush can win, but he must choose his words carefully.

"If we package this thing right, we can get something passed with some Democrat support," he said.

Bush's inaugural address Thursday contained a phrase you'll be hearing a lot in the next few months - "ownership society." It's a clever phrase that portrays the proposal as an opportunity to control your own money and build wealth. Who could oppose that?

The White House - and the TV ads bought by groups that support the president - will reassure seniors they won't lose their benefits. As an ad from the conservative group Progress for America says, "Washington must strengthen Social Security - no changes for those at or near retirement, but younger workers should have the option of a personal savings account."

Notice the wording: a personal savings account. Who could argue with that?

Meanwhile, Bush's tax reform plan is off to a slow start.

During the campaign, Bush hinted he would propose a major overhaul to simplify Byzantine tax laws. However, the latest signals from the administration suggest he'll offer a more modest plan - and wait until next year.

Tanner, of the Cato Institute, said Bush is smart to delay the tax proposal because it avoids a mistake of the Clinton administration, which tried to pass too many initiatives at once. Tanner said Bush and his aides realize they are more likely to prevail if they focus on one big idea at a time.

"They are disciplined. They have a theme. They stick to it," he said.

Tanner points out that the Bush administration has passed all of its big initiatives - even when facing long odds.

"They play hardball. They make deals and they twist arms," Tanner said. "It's going to be like a mini presidential campaign."

Washington bureau chief Bill Adair can be reached at 202 463-0575 or adair@sptimes.com