by Dick Morris
Give President George W. Bush points for skill in
manipulating his stem-cell-research decision in such a way as to get the
television networks to give him free time to address the nation. In need of a
high-profile move to the center after a series of right-oriented decisions on
the environment and energy policy, Bush and his people were masterful in using
the stem-cell issue.
First, he kept the country guessing about where he
would come down on the issue. He let tension build week by week. Even at the
last minute, he kept a tight news embargo on his decision, usually impossible in
a leaky White House.
Second, realizing that August is the all time pits
for TV ratings and that most networks are doing reruns, Bush clearly saw the
possibility of getting a high-profile TV speech before the entire country for
his decision. Normally, a call like this one wouldn't rate anything like a
prime-time TV speech simulcast on all networks and cable news stations to
guarantee a maximum audience. Usually, a president has to declare war on
somebody to get that kind of time.
It used to be easy to get on nationwide television
with a presidential speech. Back in the late 60s and 70s, Nixon had only to ask
and the networks obeyed. Since then, however, times have changed. Now, the
networks resist the idea of losing the advertising revenues they miss when a
president preempts their prime-time programming.
In the Clinton administration, whenever we
considered an address over national television, press secretary Mike McCurry
would warn that the networks are likely to refuse the request. When the
president decided to address the nation to present his balanced-budget
proposals, McCurry was skeptical that we could get the time. To get the networks
to agree, the president had the vice president personally call the networks
asking for the time. Since Al Gore was the point man on developing violence- and
sexual-content ratings systems for television, he carried an unusual amount of
clout at the networks. Gore succeeded, and Clinton spoke. Afterwards, McCurry
told us that they were furious at being manipulated.
Since that speech, the only time Clinton got was to
talk about sending troops to Bosnia and about his lying about Lewinsky. Neither
a winning topic.
So when Bush manipulated a relatively ordinary and
not very crucial decision into a prime-time television speech, he deserves
points for skill and acumen. By holding his cards close to his vest and hyping
the issue through leaks that he was pondering a difficult decision, he lay the
basis for access to the prime-time audience brilliantly.
It makes all the difference in the world whether a
decision like stem-cell research is announced at a press event or in a national
TV speech. The impact of the former is minor and transitory. But a TV speech
triggers a lasting impression among tens of millions of people.
Now, Bush has shown his instinct for the center and
defused talk that he was drifting to the right. He might even have helped to buy
credibility on the life/choice issue which he may need when he asks America to
trust his designations to the Supreme Court. By moving away from the hard-right
pro-life ideology on the issue of stem-cell research, Bush is like the circus
performer who rights himself midway in his death-defying tightrope walk across
the top of the big tent.
He's done this act before. After announcing his
presidential candidacy by calling himself a "compassionate conservative," he
veered sharply right to compete with the other GOP would-be presidential
candidates. But then he came back with an education-oriented convention and a
centrist campaign to follow.
As president, his early record with its emphasis on
a huge tax cut, arsenic in the water, oil drilling, nuclear power and his
refusal to send the Kyoto global-warming treaty to the Senate for a ratification
vote, Bush seemed to have drifted too far to the right. Through this speech, he
is catching himself and pushing determinedly to the middle.
Bush seems to realize that a president needs to
govern from the center.