The President's Dilemma


President Bush has tremendous resources in the incumbency for his re-election. They should not be underestimated. His visit to be photographed with children at a Baltimore County Head Start center was just a whiff.

But he also has a problem. It would not show were the economy robust and he still the incredibly popular leader of a brief war. It is a problem that emerges to view in hard times.

It is the mirror image of the Democrats' need to hold together the zealous liberals who give the party its purpose and energy and the reasonable moderates who dictate the outcome of elections. The mix of attributes best suited to winning a Democratic nomination is usually death on Election Day.

Mr. Bush has two sets of principles, guiding advisers and stars to steer by. He must be true to each. Either can reciprocate if spurned. He is caught between the conservative right wing and the sensible center of American politics, between the need to retain the enthusiasm of the faithful who do the work and the tolerance of the uncommitted who cast the decisive votes.

It is not a unique position in politics. Every major Democrat knows about it, every British Tory and Laborite. President Nixon could tell him a few (expletive deleted) things about it.

President Nixon employed speech writers for each, Ray Price to be Good Richard and Pat Buchanan to be Bad Richard, and others for different personae. As described by the memoirist William Safire: "When he was at his most presidential, Ray Price was the writer Nixon preferred; when he was at his most elemental, it was Pat Buchanan, for whom he also had a personal affection; and when he wanted the complicated made simple, or a line to be quoted, myself."

The right-wing pillar of Bush support is loyal to, if anyone, President Reagan. It judges Mr. Bush on his faithfulness to dogma. It wants deregulation, drastically lower spending in the domestic area and a Supreme Court ruling that abortion is murder. Movement conservatives are ready to accuse the president of apostasy, cynicism and opportunism at the first sign of straying. At any sign of creeping liberalism, they swat him as no better than a Democrat (that being slightly lower than a rattlesnake).

It is instructive to watch Mr. Bush on the issue of abortion. He was a late convert to the right-to-life side. With victory in sight on the Supreme Court, he saw the politics of it boomerang. So he called the party a big tent with room for abortion-righters. This season he is an ardent right-to-lifer again. Come October, he is likely to rediscover the big tent.

Mr. Bush's forceful State of the Union address should have passed most of the conservative litmus tests. He wants to deregulate the banks, halve capital-gains tax, replace welfare (with what he did not say), throw a bone called enterprise zones (an early Reagan proposal to abolish regulation) at the cities.

Committed conservatives make the Republican Party tick at national election time. They provide it funds, ideas, energy and envelope-stuffing. He cannot do without them. But they are not representative of the nation. The decisive part of the electorate that Mr. Bush needs is comfortable voting Democratic some of the time -- especially for senator, representative, governor and legislator. Ronald Reagan was extremely good at winning the votes of such people.

The 1980s boom moved people to the right. But the 1992 recession and anxiety moved the country a little to the left. Unheralded, a -- of liberalism is back in style: a little shelter for the homeless here, better nutrition for poverty babies there. Pragmatists are style watchers; true believers are not.

To appeal to uncommitted voters in these parlous times is to steal Democratic thunder. Hence, a little more for Pell grants and WIC in the budget. Peanuts, of course. There is not much play in a budget even of $1.52 trillion that allots $15.4 billion for crime-fighting, $15.7 billion for agriculture, $17 billion for space and technology, $18 for foreign aid, $25.1 billion for the environment -- and $214.6 billion for interest on accumulated deficits.

The trick is to try to appease one constituency without enraging the other. This can be done once, twice, but not always. Right now, Mr. Bush needs to beat back the Buchanan challenge. He needs the conservatives in the Republican primaries. But he needs their favor without crippling his appeal to middle-of-the-road voters in November.

It was not going to be such a problem. A year ago, Mr. Bush was invincible. That is why no Democrat of national stature is seeking his party's presidential nomination today. But then the recession came back, creating pessimism beyond precedent.

Now that he is in trouble, Mr. Bush will be seen placating alternately the hard-core conservatives and the uncommitted voters out there, the ideologues and pragmatists in his camp. It is a fair bet that he will tilt conservative until midsummer, and pragmatic after. How well he brings it off will affect his electability against a credible opponent, should one emerge. Finding out is what campaigns are for.

None of this would matter should the economy snap back. Mr. Bush will do everything in his power to make that happen. It isn't much, thanks to the interest bill. That is why he is reduced to haranguing bank regulators to loosen up. It is what he can do.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

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