Bush Should Learn From Dos and Don'ts From Clinton

Commentary by Pete du Pont

As the man from Hope hands over the keys to the Oval office and every media outlet airs a Clinton retrospective, President Bush should quickly reflect on the Clinton era and learn the lessons of what to do and what not to do as president that his eight years have provided.

First the easy part, what not to do. Don't use the office for personal gain. The hard truth is President Clinton made this mistake early on in his administration, and he never appeared to learn the lesson. From holding up air traffic so he could get his hair cut aboard Air Force Once, to getting pizza and other services from an intern outside the Oval office, the White House staff was continually held hostage to damage control stemming from his personal abuses. While it's unlikely that Bush would follow in Clinton's footsteps, it's good nevertheless to heed this warning: The Oval office is there to serve the American people, not yourself.

Second, don't triangulate and play partisan games with every issue, especially the big ones. For eight years President Clinton followed the teachings of Dick Morris and pitted Republican against Democrat in the Congress, while using language to imply that he wanted reforms, yet ensuring nothing would actually get done. Perfect example: "Save Social Security First!" That slogan, used by Clinton during one of his State of the Union addresses, was used by the White House and Congressional Democrats as a partisan sledgehammer to bludgeon Republicans on any and every issue. Worse yet, they failed to propose a single legitimate proposal themselves to fulfill Clinton's call to save the financially strapped program, while at the same time demagogued real reform efforts proposed by Republicans as threats to seniors. Bush should resist the temptation to do the same to the Democrats, and instead get his revenge by enacting reforms.

Third - don't always worry about who gets the credit. While it is a Washington tradition to claim credit for things you may have only been indirectly involved with, the Clinton administration took this habit to another level. From an economic recovery that began before he took office, to welfare reform he vetoed twice before relenting to electoral pressures, to the supposed 100,000 new cops on the streets, Clinton sought and continues to seek credit for anything and everything that went right during his eight years. This mindless search for approval and a legacy often pushed him to hype the mediocre as if it were Nobel material. Not only does this diminish the office, it diminishes any real accomplishments - not to mention irritate those who you'll need to work with in the future.

Not all of Clinton's lessons are negative. He did show how some things could and should be done. First, do take your case directly to the American public from time to time. President Reagan perfected this technique, but Clinton showed that it still works. As we unfortunately saw during the budget shutdown, few things work better at breaking an impasse with Congress than heat put on them by their constituents energized by their president's call for help. This may come in handy to get your tax cut or Social Security reform proposals passed.

Do humanize the important issues. This can be taken too far at times - remember "I feel your pain" jokes - but when employed appropriately it can be used to generate the support for your proposals from people who may not read long policy papers or who get turned off by the GOP's tendency to sound like a bunch of accountants.

Finally, do tell the truth. I don't need to rehash all of the finger wagging details to support this one. After all, Clintonian will forever be the term used for someone who parses words to evade responsibility for the truth. If we only learn one lesson from the Clinton era it should be this - be honest with the public, in good times and in bad.