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He's showing up now. As each wavering House member listens to the President make his case on the patients' rights bill, Bush cannot afford to leave misimpressions. Lately he has been trying his best to apply direct pressure. In House majority leader Dennis Hastert's office on Thursday, Bush pitched wavering members of the New Jersey delegation. Georgia Republican Charlie Norwood, chief sponsor of the version Bush can't stand, was finally called in that day for his first face-to-face chat in the Oval Office. Bush phoned him again Friday. After working out what Bush thought might be a compromise--allowing patients to sue their HMOs in state court but under federal guidelines--the President phoned Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, the godfather of the opposition. "I really want to sign something," Bush said. "I hope you won't dismiss this out of hand." Kennedy and his team did dismiss it, but Bush is still in there selling.
So far, his game doesn't conjure memories of Lyndon Baines Johnson. But the White House never promised that this President would ride herd on Congress like L.B.J. did. Instead, Bush was supposed to succeed with the congenial approach that served him so well in Texas. His charm and people skills were supposed to survive the trip North, bust gridlock, untie policy knots like Social Security reform. His aides are still besotted. "I just wish you could watch him," one of them gushes about Bush's work this week.
People are watching. The patients' rights outcome will determine whether Bush's frequent public veto threats amount to a smart negotiating ploy or a public relations blunder. Will he prevail or be seen as a servant of the HMOs? Democrats, of course, hope Bush fails to find the votes he needs, because that would sap his political power and prove he can't use the Republican House as a bulwark against the Democratic Senate. Republicans see the battle as a test of how much air support they can expect from Bush in the fights to come. Is he willing to open every window, try every angle, scamper up every avenue to win the close ones? "It gets tougher," says Republican Representative Chris Shays, a sponsor of the campaign-finance-reform bill that Bush opposes, which is likely to resurface this fall. "All the issues that we knew would be a problem are coming up now."
It has always been naive to assume that nicknames and bear hugs would be enough to move legislation, but when Bush has truly engaged--and compromised--as he did on taxes and education, he has been effective. When he has merely repeated a list of principles and freeze-dried phrases, as he did to promote his energy plan and campaign-finance reform, he has been less so. And during the patients' rights fight, the culmination of six years of bloody gridlock, Bush has been trying to make the case by looking into the soul of those who gather around his Cabinet Room table. They are looking right back, questioning his sincerity, demanding signs of good faith and asking after favors. Moderates in particular are suspicious that Bush's charm is meant to obscure his true intent, which in this case might mean doing nothing at all.