For Bush, it could be a game of inches

WASHINGTON (AP) - New presidents like to hit the ground running but even President-elect Bush's supporters say political realities will force him to move by inches at the start.

Bush's campaign platform was ambitious, delving into the fundamentals of Social Security, education, Medicare, national defense and more. Two priorities, better schools and affordable prescription drugs for the elderly, enjoy appeal across party lines, at least in broad terms.

But his plan for $1.3 trillion in tax cuts over 10 years does not. And while his proposal to partially privatize Social Security intrigues some Democrats, the subject promises a roaring debate that Bush seems disinclined to invite before a lot of work goes into selling Americans on the idea.

He got a splash of cold water on the face when he visited Washington last week, only to find fellow Republicans reluctant to swallow his across-the-board tax cuts in one gulp.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., wanted to deal with the package ''a piece at a time'' and spoke of incrementalism, hardly the talk characteristic of a party rising to power in the White House.

On Social Security, Bush is dealing not just with a sacrosanct program before a closely divided Congress but a jumpy stock market that may make Americans think twice about trusting private accounts to give them a secure retirement.

Bush himself sounded a cautious note on his plan, noting his first move will be to form a commission on Social Security's future.

''I'm going to look at (it) to make sure it's the right policy,'' he said last week. ''I think it is.''

He described tax relief, free trade, Social Security reform and cuts in regulations as the cornerstone of his plan to keep the economy robust.

Policy analyst David C. John of the Heritage Foundation, a group that has provided some of the intellectual horsepower for conservative measures embraced by Bush and many congressional Republicans, says the new president has no choice but to be measured.

''He's got to build more political capital than most presidents do,'' he said. Yet ''there are ways of having small victories. Rather than going for everything at once, you take small deliberate steps toward your final goal.''

For example, he notes Bush has an opportunity to appoint a Social Security Administration commissioner amenable to his plan - one who might see to it that the statements workers get outlining their future benefits also show what they might earn if some of their payroll taxes went into personal accounts.

By that thinking, Bush could soften the ground before taking a leap of such magnitude.

On education, Bush is proposing a more expansive role for Washington than Republicans have favored in the past. He favors more federal money for education and tougher standards for states, schools and students.

Those ideas generally sit well with Democrats but there is disagreement in the details, especially with his proposal to create vouchers that students in persistently failing schools could use for private tuition.

John said Bush ''can get pretty much whatever he wants as long as he's willing to put the effort in.'' He then added more qualifiers: ''if he remembers where he wants to go, and uses his time effectively, doesn't get sidetracked.''

In Washington, memories are fresh of President Clinton's messy detour on gays in the military at the start of his administration. That sidetracking has stood ever since as a warning against the pursuit of a divisive secondary policy, however deeply felt.

So far, Bush has steered clear of such matters.

In an exposition last week on the risk of an energy shortage, Bush touched on almost every solution being considered - leaning on OPEC, spurring U.S. natural gas production, developing clean coal reserves.

But there was a conspicuous exception: He did not mention his support for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil exploration, a position hotly opposed by most Democrats.

Nor has Bush, in preparing to put federal employees to work for his ends, made much of another campaign plank - to eliminate 30,000 of them over 10 years through attrition.

That detail was seldom mentioned in the campaign but central as an accounting device, saving an estimated $200 billion for tax cuts and spending.

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