Leader Blues

Saturday, September 02, 2006

EDITORIALS>>Where was the president?

There was a time — up to about a year ago, in fact — when a presidential visit was a big event in rural vineyards like Arkansas. When President Reagan swooped into Little Rock for an eleventh-hour campaign visit to plug Arkansas Republican candidates for federal office, every moment of his sojourn was public from his deplaning to the emplaning.

Local television cameramen were hustled to the front to capture every word, every gesture of the great communicator. Even Bill Clinton appearances, which have become tiresomely repetitive, are so open that no cameraperson or reporter from the most hostile medium is ever kept far away.

But the 43rd president of the United States came to the capital this week, two months before the election, to give a lift to the Republican candidate for governor and the public hardly got a glimpse of him.

President Bush’s words at Little Rock were private and confidential except for one carefully arranged “spontaneous” encounter with selected media on the parking lot of a restaurant near the state Capitol, where he uttered a few words about speeches on Iraq that he intends to give in the next few weeks and had his picture taken with a sack of fried pies and with Asa Hutchinson a few paces away.

The president’s lone appearance was on the grounds of a gated mansion in west Little Rock, the home of a prominent Republican supporter of Mr. Hutchinson. The media were not invited and the president’s words there were supposed to fall only upon the friendly Republican ears that were assembled.

There were enough of them to raise a reported $650,000 for the coffers of the Arkansas Republican Party and Mr. Hutchinson’s personal campaign chest.

We know that raising money for the party’s beleaguered candidate for governor was the purpose of the visit, and that it was from that standpoint very successful. The money will be a big lift to Hutchinson and to scores of Republican candidates for state and local offices throughout Arkansas.

It is the political dynamic that troubles us. No political organization in history has been better at controlling media coverage of a man for maximum effect than has the George W. Bush organization.

Karl Rove, the mastermind of the Bush political career, was on hand for the visit. But now the effort is bent toward reducing, not exploiting, coverage of the president. This nation is not accustomed to hiding the presence of the president of the United States.

Arkansas is not an aberration. Presidential visits to help Republican candidates often are almost secret. The president appears at a private function, people write big checks and the president is swept away, distant cameras perhaps catching a presidential wave.

Sometimes, even the benefiting Republican candidate stays away so that he is not photographed with the president.
It happens most frequently in states where polls show that the president is not popular. (Only in Utah is his approval rating at 50 percent or better.) In Arkansas, polls show him at around 35 percent, about the same as Hutchinson’s rating, or a little worse, depending on the poll.

The theory is that while Hutchinson needs the money that the president can raise and the energy among the party faithful that a presidential visit can engender, prime-time association with an unpopular president can hurt a candidate among independent voters.

That has always been a theory, but we have not seen it actually practiced before, except for Al Gore’s ill-conceived strategy in 2000 to play down his association with President Clinton. A little more association might have won him the presidency.
The day after the president’s visit, Hutchinson was in northwest Arkansas, where both his and the president’s standings are much better. Describing Bush’s visit on Wednesday, Hutchinson made this surprising statement:
“The best thing about it was that the press was excluded and he could talk from his heart.”

Does the president not talk from the heart when the media — and the public — are listening? As it happened, someone among the donors at the Little Rock gathering made a home movie of the president’s talk and it wound up on several blogs. What the president had to say was almost verbatim what he says everywhere.

The conventional wisdom about these matters is wrong. Bush’s popularity among voters is low, but he is the president of the United States. It will do Hutchinson and Mike Huckabee, who also was among the hidden guests, no harm to be seen in the presence of the president and the titular head of his party, whatever the poll numbers.

Voters are discerning and they discount for a strong degree of party loyalty. People will not vote for Mike Beebe simply because Bush appeared with his opponent.

Bush is not Hutchinson’s problem.