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.

Bush also seems to lack Reagan's personal security. Reagan said a lot of nutty things, but he was at ease with himself, and that was reassuring. Over time the public became convinced that he was not going to start a nuclear war or throw old people out into the snow. (Poor people were another matter.) Bush, on the other hand, usually says sensible things, and he goes out of his way to sound reassuring ("a kinder, gentler nation"). But he is so easily rattled that he makes people nervous. Last September, when reporters confronted him with evidence that federal agents had set up a drug deal in a park across the street from the White House to provide a prop for his speech on drug policy, Bush responded angrily, "I don't understand. I mean, has somebody got some advocates here for this drug guy?"

Bush seems paralyzed by two fears—the fear of being called a wimp and the fear of creating controversy. Our greatest tragedies as President, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, were haunted by deep personal insecurities. They kept polls in their pockets and made lists of enemies. Bush seems nowhere near that level of paranoia or vindictiveness. But he has been described as "ill at ease ... in his own skin," and that is not a good sign.

Reagan's style was to take a firm stand, rally public support, and challenge Congress to give him what he wanted. Bush's style is to make a deal. He negotiates quietly, outside the glare of publicity and with as little rancor as possible. He then announces a compromise, shifts his position to accommodate the outcome, and invites the country to applaud the spirit of bipartisanship and cooperation.

Almost every year Reagan would go to the wall on the federal budget and military aid to the contras. Bush made deals with Congress early last year on both issues. The deals had serious flaws, but at least the two sides agreed to agree. The country was spared the usual gunfight at the O.K. Corral over budget policy and contra aid. In May, Bush averted a NATO crisis by hammering out a compromise among the allies. In October he made a deal with the Democrats to raise the minimum wage but allow for a temporary training wage for teenagers.

The Bush Administration has made progress on issues that seemed hopelessly stalemated during the Reagan years—clean air, the minimum wage, the contras. This progress has deflected criticism by the Democrats. They can hardly complain about a President who wants to make a deal with them.

Bush sees the President as the great facilitator, not the great communicator. His is an unheroic politics in which everything, or almost everything, is negotiable. Reagan believed that raising the minimum wage was wrong, that Americans have an absolute right to bear arms, and that the Sandinista government is an intolerable threat to U.S. security. Bush has been willing to compromise on all these points.

There are two issues on which Bush has drawn the line, however—abortion and taxes. Like Reagan, Bush will not compromise his "principles" on these issues. But Reagan was an ideologue; he believed what he believed, reality be damned. Bush is a pragmatist, so the conflict with reality is more of a problem for him. In his only prime-time television speech to the nation, Bush called for a national war on drugs, but he refused to ask Americans to make any sacrifices to pay for it. In October he vetoed a bill that would have extended Medicaid funding to poor women who are the victims of rape or incest. Reagan's stubborn fealty to principles conveyed an image of strength. Bush's willingness to compromise on everything except abortion and taxes conveys an image of calculation, religious conservatives and affluent suburbanites being the core constituencies in the GOP coalition.

The Bush Administration does bring a high standard of professionalism to government. That's not such a bad thing, considering that professionalism was often conspicuously missing during the Reagan years. Bush's appointments have fallen into two categories. His political choices, all of them controversial, have come from the right wing of the party—Quayle for Vice President, Atwater for Republican Party chairman, and John Sununu for White House chief of staff. In the realm of policy-making, however, Bush has been more cautious. He kept on a number of Reagan appointees, all of whom were regarded as moderates—Nicholas Brady in the Treasury Department, Richard Thomburgh in the Justice Department, William Webster at the CIA, and Lauro Cavazos in the Department of Education. Bush's Secretary of State, James Baker, was reviled by conservatives when he served as Reagan's chief of staff.

These people are not agenda-setters. They are problem-solvers. Like Bush himself, they offer strong qualifications and considerable experience. Moreover, they have records of accomplishment independent of their relationship with George Bush. With Bush the rule seems to be no ideological hard-liners, no Evil Empire-baiters, no economic cranks, "no Bozos." And no bold new ideas.

What all this professionalism adds up to is not exactly leadership. It is more like management. Bush's policies have been reactive. The United States responds, cautiously and reluctantly, to others' proposals. It is an in-box approach to governing. You respond to problems as they reach your desk, and you do whatever is necessary to get them off your desk.