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The Art of Changing Course By: David Frum
National Post | Wednesday, December 20, 2006


There's a rumour circulating in Washington that President Bush will use his State of the Union address next month to announce a new initiative on global climate change.

Rumours like this always have to be handled with care. Even if they are true at the time they circulate, there's no guarantee they will stay true. Rumours circulated before the 2004 State of the Union that the president would announce a new space mission to Mars--but at the last moment, the administration abandoned the idea.

But let's suppose the rumour is true. If so, it would raise all kinds of profound policy questions--and also a question of crass politics. The Bush administration has, until now, taken a skeptical view toward climate change. What is the best way for an administration to change course like this?

Course change is one of the most essential maneuvers in politics--and also one of the most dangerous. A badly executed course change in 1979 wrecked Jimmy Carter's presidency: By retreating to Camp David and firing his economic team, he only confirmed his reputation as the worst economic manager since Herbert Hoover. But a cleverly executed course change in 1995 saved Bill Clinton: By declaring the age of Big Government over, and setting welfare reform as his top priority, he persuaded Americans that he was a sensible centrist, after all.

Roughly speaking, there are two major coursechanging techniques.

One is to deny that you have changed course at all--to insist that the ship is sailing steady as she goes. This was the technique used by Ronald Reagan. In 1981, Reagan persuaded Congress to enact the ambitious Kemp-Roth tax cut. But Reagan's tax cut reduced federal revenues much more than expected.

(Footnote for wonks: the reason for the surprise lay in the way that the tax code of the time interacted with inflation. High inflation produced high revenues for government. In 1981-82, inflation was reduced much faster than forecasters had imagined possible.)

And so in 1982, the administration decided it had to raise revenues by increasing excise taxes, removing corporate tax deductions, and so on: a huge peacetime tax increase. And yet somehow Reagan persuaded the country that he opposed this tax increase, that it was forced on him, that it was the work of Democrats in Congress.

Reagan was of course reelected in 1984 and is remembered as one of the great tax-cutters in American history.

Another great president took exactly the opposite approach.

Sometime in 1939-1940, Franklin Roosevelt made up his mind that he would break the ancient American taboo and seek a third term as president. But he faced a serious problem: Many voters had wearied of the liberal domestic policies of the Roosevelt administration. In the congressional elections of 1938, liberal Democrats had lost power to an informal coalition of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats. A third presidential bid by Roosevelt seemed doomed to end in disaster.

And so Roosevelt executed a conspicuous public pivot. In the summer of 1940--just a week before the Republican convention!--he fired his Secretary of War and Secretary of the Navy and replaced them with two Republicans: Henry Stimson (who had served as secretary of state under Herbert Hoover) and Frank Knox (the Republican nominee for vice-president in 1936). He began closing down liberal domestic programs like the famed Civilian Conservation Corps and reining in conspicuous liberal appointees like his trust-busting assistant attorney general Thurman Arnold. Roosevelt won in 1940, largely because (as he later explained) he had replaced "Dr. New Deal" with "Dr. Win the War."

There's no ready answer to the question of which is the best path, Roosevelt's or Reagan's.

In Iraq, George W. Bush has followed the Reagan path, repeatedly changing methods and tactics but without drawing attention to his changes of direction. The voting public has not liked that.

On the other hand, on immigration, President Bush has followed the Roosevelt approach, turning about-face on the border fence and ordering raids onmeat-packing factories that employ illegal aliens. Yet this has not helped him either: Immigration skeptics still do not trust him on the issue, but neither do Hispanic voters. And his overall poll numbers have not even twitched in response.

Maybe the real lesson of the story is that in politics, it is never possible to succeed wholly or for very long. Politicians are always trying to pull too little sheet over too much mattress: to reconcile the irreconcilable, to unite disparate and disputatious constituencies.

And that is perhaps why the people who do best in politics so often think like artists rather than like intellectuals: not in terms of clear categories and sharp distinctions, but in terms of new patterns, arrangements and possibilities. For them, the new is never purely new; the old never entirely discarded.

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David Frum is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and writes a daily column for National Review Online.


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