WASHINGTON - When President Bush was a campaign strategist preparing to help his father seek the White House in 1988, he was outraged when Newsweek magazine ran a 4,000-word cover story suggesting the self-effacing George H.W. Bush was a "wimp" who didn't project enough strength and toughness for the Oval Office.
Despite critics, including some Republicans, who slyly opined that the elder Bush was a "lapdog" as Ronald Reagan's vice president, Mr. Bush easily defeated Michael Dukakis, also accused of being wimpy. Mr. Bush lost to Bill Clinton four years later, in part because he alienated conservatives when he changed his mind and moved his lips to approve a tax hike.
The former president's son learned a lesson he's never forgotten: The perception of being tough, single-minded, and committed is as essential in politics today as being likable and good-looking on TV.
It's often been noted that this President's mentor as a politician was less his father than Mr. Reagan. Mr. Reagan boldly promised to cut taxes, raise defense spending, and balance the budget. He did two of those and left a record deficit, but many Americans didn't seem to mind. They liked him. He was amiable and unyielding.
When Pope John Paul II died, even those who vehemently disagreed with him on many issues fervently praised his unbending "commitment to his beliefs" and refusal to compromise. He scolded Mr. Bush repeatedly for the war in Iraq, but at his death Mr. Bush lauded him as a man of principle.
It's the Reagan-John Paul model that Mr. Bush is following as he barnstorms the country to promote his Social Security plan.
Mr. Bush wants to be seen as firm and unwavering, even if the matter at hand is as unpopular as his version of Social Security "reform" appears to be right now.
"I enjoy taking on this issue," he told the nation's newspaper editors this week. "I guess it's the mother in me."
Yes. It's no secret that Mr. Bush identifies more with his feisty mother than his more relaxed father. What he means is that he is not going to give up just because Americans are becoming alarmed at the idea of changing Social Security without being told exactly what those changes would be.
Just as Mr. Bush is doggedly determined to persevere in Iraq, he is just as determined to leave his mark on domestic affairs. He sees no reason why he can't change Social Security, make his tax cuts permanent, and redraw the legal playing field to make regulations and taxes less onerous to business.
The cost to taxpayers of all this will be trillions of dollars. Apparently, as loyal Vice President Cheney has been quoted as saying, "Deficits don't matter."
Bush economic adviser Allan Hubbard, a former Indiana businessman who became one of his best friends at Yale, told reporters at a recent breakfast that Mr. Bush's commitment to changing Social Security is his No. 1 priority and that he'll never flinch from it. But Mr. Hubbard, while a true believer, couldn't say for sure which details Mr. Bush might approve and which he'd oppose. One listens to him and thinks the Bush-Hubbard prescription for success is just salesmanship.
Yet after nearly two months of going on the road to sell changes to Social Security, the Bush Administration has made little headway in convincing Americans major changes are needed. Two-thirds say they'd rather have predictable benefits without the risk of having to invest wisely or lose their retirement.
Some think this is similar to Mr. Clinton's trying to sell national health insurance in his first term. After a $40 million ad campaign featuring Harry and Louise - two characters expressing doubts about the proposed plan - and a fog of White House secrecy, Mr. Clinton took a shellacking. He retreated to lick his wounds. He lost control of Congress. And 45 million Americans are uninsured.
Mr. Bush has decided this won't happen to him. He thinks that if he just keeps insisting he's right and selling the idea that Social Security is in crisis, Americans will buy into what he says.
Mr. Bush seems to think that if he refuses to be specific about changes to Social Security because "everything's on the table," Americans will be mesmerized - or lulled - into trusting his earnest sales pitch that the markets are magic. But history begs to differ, and Democrats won't put up a plan until he does. The uncertainty is making people nervous.
In his determination never to be labeled wimpy or weak, Mr. Bush has taken a huge gamble. And while he's certainly no stranger to risk, nobody wins the PR game all the time.
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