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The In-Box President - Page 2
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here is a peculiar rhythm to the Bush presidency. A crisis suddenly emerges and dominates the public agenda—an oil spill in Alaska, a new Soviet proposal on arms control, a hostage quandary in the Middle East, a stolen election in Panama, a NATO conflict, a saving-and-loan problem, mass protests in China, an emergency in Poland. The press attacks the administration for weakness and indecision. Commentators accuse Bush of having no policy to deal with the situation. The administration responds that it is being prudent. Critics say it is being timid.

Suddenly the President steps in and makes a dramatic gesture. There is a burst of activity, heads get banged together, and a compromise results. The crisis ends, even though the problem may be unresolved. (Noriega is still in power, American hostages are still in Lebanon, and the Alaskan coastline is still befouled.) The press pronounces Bush's intervention a success. The President's popularity goes up. And public attention shifts to something else. Bush has kept up with his in-box.

Bush is a master of the politics of good intentions. In his inaugural address he declared, "We have work to do" and ticked off the nation's problems—homelessness, child poverty, crime, drug addiction. He called for "a new activism, hands-on and involved, that gets the job done." But what did he intend to do? Whatever it was, it would not involve spending a lot of money. "The old solution ... was to think that public money alone could end these problems," the new President told the nation. "But we have learned that this is not so.... We have more will than wallet, but will is what we need." It is hard to quarrel with Bush's assertion that money alone cannot solve our problems. But how can they be solved without money? Governor Mario Cuomo tried to call Bush's bluff when he wrote in September, "President Bush has done all he can with speeches. Now he has to produce resources that will deliver on his promises or concede to the nation that he is still an unconverted conservative [trying] to earn himself some cheap grace by reciting a little Democratic poetry."

.S. diplomatic initiatives have been as limited as U.S. domestic initiatives, and for the same reason: there isn't any money. At the economic summit in Paris last July the United States had to persuade other countries to help foot the bill on critical issues like international debt relief and economic aid for Poland and Hungary.

Mindful of appearing too defensive and reactive, George Bush began his presidency by ordering a comprehensive policy review to figure out how the United States should meet Gorbachev's bold challenge. After months of effort the review concluded that the United States could no longer remain in the position of defending the status quo. The report recommended that the United States broaden the agenda instead, and offer the world something new—"the status quo plus."

Last spring, when Gorbachev said he would stop sending weapons to Nicaragua, the White House responded with annoyance. Its press spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, dismissed the gesture as a "public-relations gambit" perpetrated by a "drugstore cowboy." When the Soviets announced that they would withdraw 500 nuclear missiles from Europe, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney complained that they have "so many ratholes over there in Eastern Europe that 500 is a pittance." That kind of grudging, small-minded response reinforces our status-quo image. The world changes, and the United States stands still.

When President Bush announced that he would have an "interim, informal" meeting in December with Gorbachev, he explained, "I just didn't want to, in this time of dynamic change, miss something." The world is waiting for a Bush Doctrine that defines the American response to the Communist Reformation. The Bush Doctrine so far might be characterized as "this might not really be happening." When East Germany opened the Berlin Wall on November 9, the country longed to hear a Kennedy or a Reagan say, "We are all Berliners now." What it heard Bush say was, "We are not trying to give anybody a hard time." When Bush announced the "non-summit summit," he said, "Neither President Gorbachev nor I anticipate that substantial decisions or agreements will emerge from this December meeting." If that is the case (and at this writing it is still unclear), 1989 could go down in history as The Year of Missed Opportunities.

In September the Senate majority leader, George Mitchell, accused the administration of being so ambivalent about changes in the communist world that it often sounded "nostalgic about the Cold War." Secretary Baker's response stirred up a controversy in Washington. He said, "When the President of the United States is rocking along with a seventy-percent approval rating on his handling of foreign policy, if I were the leader of the opposition, I might have something similar to say." The Secretary appeared to acknowledge what the poll results about foreign intervention confirm—that the Bush Administration's cautious, measured approach to foreign policy is essentially politics-driven. Reaganism without risks.

Even embarrassments can be rendered harmless, as long as the President is careful to stay within the boundaries of favorable public opinion. The United States encouraged a coup in Panama, we supported a coup in Panama, and we may have even helped plan a coup in Panama. But we did not take the risk of intervening. The polls revealed that most Americans did not support the use of U.S. troops to remove General Noriega. Nothing was ventured and nothing was gained. The administration's cautious, risk-averse approach kept us out of trouble. On the other hand, the Panama issue keeps turning up in the President's in-box.

The administration is confident, however, that its strategy of prudence will pay off. A State Department official used a revealing, and distressingly shallow, metaphor to explain the Bush foreign policy to The New York Times. He said, "The Soviet game is chess, where you think out your strategy ten moves ahead, and Gorbachev is a chess player. Our game is baseball. You play it one inning at a time, but it's the final score that counts. Gorbachev may hit an occasional grand slam. We are going to try to win on singles."

owever timid or unimaginative their policies may be, the Republicans can usually rely on one thing to save them. That is the greater incompetence of the Democrats. The Democrats have repeatedly been spooked, for instance, by President Bush's "good cop-bad cop" routine—his habit of making gestures of bipartisanship and compromise while his party operatives play dirty.

The GOP strategy is to force roll-call votes in Congress on controversial issues like flag-burning and censorship. The expectation is that in the 1990 mid-term elections Democrats who take unpopular positions on these issues can be exposed as liberals whose values are outside the mainstream of American politics. The Republicans want to do to all Democrats what Bush did to Michael Dukakis in 1988.

In 1989, however, it was the Republicans who looked vulnerable on social issues like gun control and abortion. Nevertheless, it was the Democrats who seemed more nervous about "values." They didn't want Lee Atwater to use their records as he had used Dukakis's record, for target practice.

There is one lesson the Democrats have been unable to learn from the Republicans—how to behave like an opposition party. After thirty-five years in the minority, the Republicans in Congress have finally mastered the art of keeping Democrats on the defensive. Democrats, however, persist in believing that they run the country. After all, they have a lock on Congress. As a result, Democratic congressional leaders seem to feel more comfortable acting as partners with a Republican President than they do acting as the loyal opposition.

What's more, they don't seem to understand that their basic problem in the Bush era isn't values. It's taxes. Ever since the Great Inflation and the tax revolt of the late 1970s, Republicans have used anti-tax sentiment to control the political agenda.

From the 1930s through the 1960s the spending issue enabled Democrats to maintain their political hegemony. Now the Republicans are doing precisely the same thing with taxes. The national consensus has changed, and Democrats are finding tax cuts as irresistible as Republicans used to find spending bills. The anti-tax consensus helped produce the single biggest victory of the Bush presidency to date—the September 28 vote in the House of Representatives to lower the tax rate on capital gains for two years. Democratic leaders condemned what they called "a tax giveaway to the wealthy." But they found little popular resistance to a measure that raised no one's taxes and held out the possibility of some gains for everyone. So House Democratic leaders tried to outbid the Bush Administration by offering a better deal. They tried the same thing in 1981, when Ronald Reagan proposed his original tax cut. It didn't work in 1981, and it didn't work in 1989, at least not in the House. In the Senate, Democratic leaders stalled the tax cut by preventing the issue from coming to a vote.

The catastrophic-illness plan is a good example of the shift in the public agenda from spending to taxes. The program to insure Medicare recipients against catastrophic illnesses was the only major new domestic program of the 1980s. It passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 328 to 72 in 1988. The program was held up as a model of how to finance social initiatives in the deficit era. It would be financed in part by "supplemental premiums" paid by more-affluent Medicare recipients. Everyone in government, including Ronald Reagan and George Bush, seemed to view these premiums as user fees. Those who paid the premiums would get the insurance coverage.

But the program was strangled at birth. Elderly Americans discovered that what they were really paying was a tax. Moreover, they were being taxed to pay for a benefit that most of them felt they did not need. The result was a wave of angry protest calling for repeal of the plan. Which is exactly what the House voted to do, 360 to 66, last year. Something important had changed in American politics. The elderly had always been a prime spending constituency. Suddenly a vocal minority of them started militating against taxes. Virtually no one who stood to benefit from the new program spoke out in defense of it. This was very bad news for the Democrats. How could they talk about "a new agenda for social progress" if no one was willing to pay for it?

n the long run Bush's biggest problem will come not from the opposition party—the Democrats don't know what they are—but from the challenge of holding two different constituencies together. His tough, hard-hitting, right-wing election campaign, including the selection of Quayle as his running mate, enabled him to keep Reagan's conservative coalition together. This was the Bush who said, "Read my lips: No new taxes." Reaganites were reassured. They looked at Bush and said, "He's one of us."

Bush used his transition to reassure the Washington establishment that he was really a cautious, moderate pragmatist. This was the Bush who announced to the Republican National Convention in 1988, "I don't hate government." "Good old George," the Washington power elite said to one another. "He's one of us."

Well, which is he? The establishment is bothered by the President's occasional political vulgarity—his tolerance of Atwater, the flag-burning amendment—and by his failure to engage in serious negotiations on the deficit. But it approves of the administration's high standards of professionalism. Conservatives are uneasy about the sincerity of Bush's commitment to Star Wars, the contras, and gun control. But they are encouraged by his refusal to compromise on taxes and abortion.

The balance is holding right now because things are going well for Bush. But will either the conservatives or the establishment be there when Bush gets into trouble? Conservatives have never really trusted Bush. As Anthony Dolan, the chief speechwriter for President Reagan, wrote recently in The New York Times, "If [Democrats] can back the President off on his pledges to conservatives on the emotional issues—taxes, contras, defense or a Supreme Court nominee—they rob him of the intensity and the depth of personal support that would make permanent his hold on conservative voters."

Nor does the establishment's good will provide much of a political base. The power elite will stick with a President only as long as his policies are successful. If things suddenly start to fall apart, the power elite will be the first to abandon him, as it did Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Like Ford and Carter—other Presidents who had trouble with "the vision thing"—Bush will be judged entirely on his effectiveness.

Bush's popularity reflects a simple fact: he appears to be the right President for the times. The country is not in the mood for big ambitions right now, and Bush isn't offering any. Bush has only one thing to worry about—the fact that times change.

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Copyright © 1990 by William Schneider. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1990; The In-Box President - 90.01; Volume 265, No. 1; page 34-43.