SLAP-DASH ECONOMIC SUMMIT IN WACO A STUNT THAT FLOPPED

Bob Tippee

Here's the best news going about the US economy: the slap-dash economic summit in Waco, Tex., on Aug. 13 can't do any real harm.

But what were advisors to President George W. Bush thinking when they talked him into this stunt?

Nobody in the country believes that 200 regular folks venting their economic anxieties will cure economic jitters. Everybody knows it was just election-year stagecraft.

And it flopped.

The show played on the campus of Baylor University. Bush dropped in from his ranch at nearby Crawford. Vice-Pres. Dick Cheney foreshortened a vacation at Jackson Hole, Wyo., to attend.

During simultaneous conferences, the federal government's two top executives flitted from group to group, listening, taking notes, and—according to reports—exiting on cue from handlers.

Who knows what they missed, walking out in midsession as they did? Why, a fireman might have figured out how to sustain full employment without aggravating inflation. A hairdresser might have discovered the cure for commodity-price volatility.

But that's okay. Bush assured everybody he expected a full report on everything said.

Then what? Will any of it affect economic policy?

Of course not. This was politics, not policy-making. And it came across as condescension.

Former President Bill Clinton can pull off this kind of thing. He's at his best in informal groups: smiling, listening, hugging, feeling everybody's pain. He can make people think they contribute to his decisions, even when they don't.

He's a facilitator, a master of group dynamics.

Bush and Cheney don't share the gift. They're presiders, not facilitators. To presiders, group dynamics means everybody laughs when the boss tells a joke.

There's nothing wrong with that. It's just a difference of style. But presiders shouldn't try to act like facilitators.

They end up looking silly on serious subjects, such as economics. It doesn't help their credibility when they precede the theatrics with real economic blunders—similarly motivated by politics—such as steel tariffs, huge farm subsidies, and support of mandates for fuel ethanol.

The theatrics won't hurt anything. It's too bad the same can't be said for the other mistakes.

(Online Aug. 16, 2002; author's e-mail: bobt@ogjonline.com)

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