Bush, with Modest Agenda, Hurt by What He Didn't Do

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Washington. -- After three and half years as president, George Bush is probably best remembered for what he didn't do.

That's especially true on the issue his re-election campaign acknowledges as America's all-consuming priority: the shattered economy.

"It's a drift presidency," observed Keith Olson, a professor of American history at the University of Maryland. "He failed to identify the problem early, and he never explained to people, 'If not me, then someone else will have to deal with it, because the country must face it.' "

Mr. Bush didn't promise to be an activist. He just said he'd point his horse in the same direction Ronald Reagan had, keeping the economy strong and the nation at peace. The Bush difference, he said, would be a "kinder, gentler" ride and there'd be "no new taxes."

But as he prepares to claim the Republican Party's nomination for a second term, the misfortune of the Bush presidency so far is that he couldn't even deliver on that meager agenda. A cautious man seeking only custodial duties, Mr. Bush could neither maintain the status quo in what turned out to be a time of global upheaval nor develop the more aggressive approach that a rapidly changing nation demanded.

"The context changed dramatically after the first couple years of his term, and the president is now out of sync with the country," observed Thomas E. Mann, director of Governmental Studies at the Brookings Institution. "We developed a longing for an activist leader, and this president wasn't well-suited for that."

Over his term, Mr. Bush emerged as a careful manager who could skillfully negotiate a crisis, such as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. But he showed no vision for addressing the country's long-term problems and no set of overriding principles.

"He's the type of person who runs for office, but doesn't know what he wants to do with that office once he gets there," said James Thurber, director for the Center on Congressional and Presidential Studies at The American University.

But before the economy hit bottom last year, Mr. Bush's tenure was generally regarded as successful.

Major new environmental and civil rights legislation was enacted. Government help was provided for child care, and Mr. Bush completed negotiations for a free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico.

"Considering how bad his numbers were in Congress, with fewer members of his own party there than almost any president this century, he got a lot of things done," insists John H. Sununu, who served as Mr. Bush's chief of staff until last December and guided most of the domestic policy work.

Mr. Bush was more personally involved and inclined to take bolder action on the international front -- partly because he didn't need congressional approval but also because there were fewer ideological sensitivities to contend with there.

Yet, Mr. Bush's relative success on foreign policy has only made recession-weary Americans more eager for their president's attention to the problems at home. "They recall George Bush from Desert Storm; the resolute, decisive leader who accomplished a great victory," said Vince Breglio, a Republican pollster. "They can't reconcile that image of George Bush with the domestic president who says he is not able to accomplish anything because of Congress."

There is no consensus on what Mr. Bush could have done differently to treat an economic downturn that was the inevitable hangover from a binge of government and corporate borrowing during the 1980s.

But he insisted for so long that things were not as bad as they seemed that people began to wonder if he was so isolated in his world of privilege that he just didn't get it.

"The cumulative effect of all the pictures of him on golf courses and in speed boats was to suggest he was a lot more in touch with country club Republicans than the K-Mart Republicans, who were really former Democrats that voted for him," said Gary Bauer, a domestic policy adviser in the Reagan White House. "I think they figured these were not folks who understood how they lived."

Many of those who fault Mr. Bush for failing to be more of an activist on domestic issues say he should have taken advantage the enormous good will he enjoyed during the aftermath of the Persian Gulf war to take serious steps to strengthen a fragile economy.

In a triumphant address to Congress in March of 1991, the president called for speedy action only on a routine highway spending bill and a still-languishing anti-crime measure.

He had tried to soften the blow of recession with a 1990 budget agreement, breaking his tax pledge in return for a plan to reduce federal spending. But that wasn't enough, as it turned out, to lift the weight of the deficit from the economy, and the year-long confrontation left the president badly bruised, both personally and politically.

In violating his tax pledge, he enraged the right wing of his party and lost credibility with millions of voters. The famous line from his 1988 acceptance speech -- "Read my lips. No new taxes" -- has become Exhibit A in the public's case for contempt of their political leaders. It is currently being ridiculed in radio commercials for Volvos and menswear.

A fumblemouth speaker who fails to project his personal warmth well to a large audience, Mr. Bush was never able to rally Americans on domestic issues. During the budget negotiations of 1990, he went on national television to urge Americans to tell Congress they'd be willing to pay higher taxes to reduce the budget deficit. Capitol Hill's phone lines were immediately jammed with callers saying, "Vote No."

"Bush's incoherence is no minor defect," observed columnist Robert J. Samuelson. "It seems to insist that people accept what he does simply because he is doing it. In Democratic America, this is a crippling conceit."

Some analysts see the Bush years as divided into two presidencies, broken perhaps by a moment last fall when the president recognized his re-election was in trouble and began thrashing around so furiously he only made his troubles worse.

"Within weeks, he was transformed from a cool, calm leader into a frenetic whirlygig," recalled Bert A. Rockman, a scholar at The Brookings Institution and co-editor of "The Bush Presidency, First Appraisals." "He began to look silly and people began to lose confidence in his ability to lead the country."

His course often zig-zagged from one ideological extreme to the other, giving people the idea he didn't stand for anything.

He had promised to continue the Reagan revolution. But he disappointed Reaganites by championing "kinder, gentler" legislation, such as the Clean Air Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, that added greatly to government regulation.

Trying to win the Reaganites back, he lurched to the right on emotional issues like fetal tissue research and cutting the forests of the Pacific Northwest, shifts that never satisfied his conservative critics but left many others feeling betrayed.

"He's worse than Reagan," said Rep. Henry Waxman, a liberal California Democrat, who had hoped to be able to work more closely with the Bush administration. "He has no guiding principles [and seems] to decide every issue based on his re-election prospects."

Civil rights advocates and moderates whom Mr. Bush tried to embrace during his "kinder, gentler" period were also bitterly disenchanted when his courtship of the right led him to rail against "quotas," before Senate Republicans finally pressured him into signing a civil rights bill conservatives still hate.

"By trying to please everyone, George Bush pleased no one," conservative critic Richard A. Vigerie wrote in "Lip Service," an unflattering biography of the president. "The split-the-difference approach that served him well in his long climb up the GOP hierarchy, all the way to the White House, made him look weak and vulnerable. In politics, as in war, perception can become reality, and the appearance of weakness makes one weak."

Karen Hosler covers the White House for The Baltimore Sun.

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