The In-Box President

George Bush is a master of an unheroic politics in which everything, or almost everything, is negotiable  

George Bush was elected President in 1988 because most American voters were satisfied with the status quo. What we got is a status-quo President.

So far, the status quo has been Bush's principal source of strength. The economy has stayed pretty much on track. There has been no major foreign-policy calamity. True, 1989 was a great year for Washington scandals, but they involved either members of Congress or Reagan Administration officials.

Bush has averaged a 63 percent job approval rating in Gallup polls. Ronald Reagan's job-approval rating for his first year in office, when he struck out in bold new directions, averaged only 57 percent. That's what you get for taking risks.

After eight years of Reagan, Americans may have had enough vision for a while. Bush has done what the voters elected him to do. He has managed the status quo. We are, by and large, a nation of happy campers, to borrow a phrase from Vice President Dan Quayle.

The down side is that President Bush is hostage to the status quo. Suppose the economy goes into a tailspin, as it did under Reagan in 1982. Suppose Bush makes a terrible blunder, as Reagan did in the Iran-contra affair. Would the voters stay the course? And just what is the course, anyway?

Reagan was not a status-quo President. "Ronald Reagan was a successful candidate and an effective President above all else because he stood for a set of ideas," one observer has maintained. "He stated them in 1980, and it turned out that he meant them; and he wrote most of them not only into public law but into the national conciousness." That assessment was offered by Senator Edward M. Kennedy last March, at Yale University.

Reagan could be remarkably open and bold, as he was in his response to Mikhail Gorbachev. He could also be terribly naive, and his grand schemes were often grand illusions—painless deficits, Star Wars, freedom fighters, his offer at the Reykjavik summit to abolish nuclear weapons. But no one ever said Reagan was fearful of change.

That is exactly what people say about George Bush. "I think this perhaps is a time for caution," President Bush said last spring, when asked to comment on the student protests in Beijing. In China, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union millions of people were putting their lives on the line for democracy. But all the U.S. Secretary of State had to say was, "I don't think it would be in the best interests of the United States for us to see significant instability in the People's Republic of China, just like I don't think it's in the best interests of the United States for us to see significant instability in [the USSR].'' In other words, democracy is fine so long as it doesn't disturb the status quo.

Ronald Reagan was a creature of the 1960s. He was elected governor of California in 1966 in a wave of popular revulsion over racial violence (the rioting in Watts) and student protests (the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley). Reagan often saw issues as "us" versus "them." Bush, on the other hand, set out to smooth over the bitter divisions of American politics. In his inaugural address Bush lamented the fact that "a certain divisiveness" had emerged in our political life, "in which not each other's ideas are challenged but each other's motives."

Bush called on the nation to end the 1960s. "This is the age of the offered hand," the President said. "I yearn for a greater tolerance, an easygoingness about each other's attitudes and way of life." This from the man who had just run a harsh, negative campaign attacking his opponent's "values" on issues like the pledge of allegiance and furloughs for criminals.

Bush changed his image three times in one year. During the 1988 primaries he was Bush the Wimp, the man the Democrats loved to make fun of. ("Poor George, he can't help it," the Democrats' keynote convention speaker said. "He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.") He became Bush the Tough Guy in the general election, when he followed a script written by Lee Atwater, his campaign manager. Then he got elected and changed to a script by James Baker, the ultimate Washington insider. Virtually overnight he was transformed into Bush the Old Pro—cautious, reassuring, and thoroughly pragmatic.

What is missing in Bush is the hard core of conviction that one could always sense in Reagan. "I believe in unions, I believe in nonunions," Bush once said while touring a furniture factory in North Carolina. When he refused to compromise with Congress on the budget, when he defied the air-traffic controllers' strike, and when he stood by his nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, Reagan made it clear that important issues of principle were at stake.

The Bork debate was positively elevated compared with the fight over Bush's nomination of John Tower to be Secretary of Defense. Bork raised fundamental constitutional issues like original intent and the limits of judicial activism. The only principle at stake in Bush's last-ditch defense of Tower was executive privilege. Stubbornness without conviction gets a President into trouble. Jimmy Carter was at his best—the Camp David negotiations, the Panama Canal treaties—when his stubbornness was rooted in principle. Reagan was at his worst—the Iran-contra affair, the Bitburg incident—when his principles were unclear.

Presented by

William Schneider is the Cable News Network's senior political analyst. He is also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly. His column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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