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Swinging In The Wind: George Bush's Politicking: Is George Bush More Like Bill Clinton Or Ronald Reagan?
June 30, 2001
A FEW weeks ago, George Bush was Ronald Reagan - an unbending conservative inflicting a huge tax cut on a sceptical public, pushing an even vaster "son of star wars" at reluctant Europeans, and preparing to disembowel the Social Security system by setting up a commission stuffed with people who want to privatise parts of it. That was Bush the ideologue.
Now comes Bush the panderer. This is the man who surrenders to protectionists on Capitol Hill by asking his trade flack whether the steel industry (strong in Pennsylvania and West Virginia) needs import restrictions; the man who tells the navy to find somewhere other than the Vieques range in Puerto Rico (strong in New York and Florida) to practise its bombing. And this is the Bush who, after months of pointing out that energy price-controls will help California about as much as they helped former communist countries, turns around and meekly acquiesces when the independent but politically sensitive Federal Energy Regulatory Commission decides to impose price caps anyway (delightfully defined by Mr Bush's spokesman as "a market-based mitigation plan").
So it's official. Mr Bush is now Bill Clinton, lacking any policy compass, defining a spade as a labour-saving garden device and prepared to say and do almost anything to get votes. Good heavens, the man even conducts polls and holds weekly sessions where pollsters discuss policy, just like you-know-who.
And, since those who live by the poll die by the poll, along comes - right on cue - a survey in the New York Times which indeed shows Mr Bush is doing worse, down four points in the rating of his overall performance. It may be wrong: some other polls show no decrease. But in the world of Washington politicking bad news drives out good - and confirms the need for more politically driven policy-tinkering to push ratings up again.
Lexington's reaction to this is broadly the same as the corrupt police chief's in "Casablanca" when closing down Rick's bar. "I am shocked, shocked to find that there is politics going on in this establishment." Mr Bush's criticism of energy price-caps was hurting Republicans in California, so naturally that criticism had to be moderated. On trade, he is calculating that appeasing the steel lobby will help him win a bigger fight for Trade Promotion Authority. As for the Vieques decision, that is already playing well among Latinos, whose approval ratings for the president are at 59%, far above both the nationwide average and Mr Bush's share of Latino votes last November.
Politics, in other words, not just as normal but pretty much as Mr Bush's critics were demanding a month ago - that is to say, politics that appeals to swing voters. And, if Mr Bush gets attacked for it, he deserves little sympathy. He should not have exaggerated his criticism of Mr Clinton for doing the same thing, nor claimed that he would make "decisions based on principle, not based on polls or focus groups." The "permanent campaign" - in which the line between campaigning and governing has become all but invisible - is indeed permanent.
The fact that Mr Bush has a Clintonian side should surprise nobody; the real surprise is how Reaganesque he was to begin with. For better or worse, Mr Bush transformed the political environment on tax cuts even while opinion polls showed them to be unpopular; on missile defence and Kyoto, he calmly ignored his allies' nervous flapping. What is going on?
One explanation is that Mr Bush is developing a schizophrenic presidency, in which there are two Bushes, a Reaganesque and a Clintonian one. On things that Mr Bush campaigned vigorously for, he is determinedly principled. That explains his toughness on taxes, missile defence and possibly (it remains to be seen) Social Security. But on secondary matters he is prepared to cave in with breathtaking and brutal casualness. Hence his acquiescence in energy price-controls - something that western Republicans were almost certain to vote for anyway (so why get into a fight with them about it?). Hence his willingness to abandon the Vieques range (which was likely to be rejected in a referendum in Puerto Rico this year, so why not salvage something from Puerto Rican voters now?). Mr Bush is prepared to cut his losses rather than defend principles in pointless battles.
There is a good deal in this view. Mr Bush has never been solely a conservative, nor a centrist, but both at different times. Yet there remains a problem with the idea of a "schizophrenic presidency". It takes too much account of Mr Bush's own political personality, and too little of the circumstances he faces.
The problem can be seen most clearly with his education reforms. Along with tax cuts, education was supposed to be one of his signature issues. If the "principled-on-big-things" view were all there is to him, Mr Bush should have steadfastly defended conservative views on education reform, vouchers and all. Instead, he caved in to Democrats from the start. Why? Because he knew he had only a little time to get his top priorities agreed on before the Senate changed hands (though he feared that might happen through illness or death, not defection). Political circumstances, not his own preferences, decided policy.
Now the Senate has changed hands. Over the next few months, most of the issues he will face are likely to be Democratic ones, thanks to that party's control of the Senate's agenda. This means the Clintonian Bush is likely to have the upper hand a while longer. Of course, there will be chances for him to be Reaganesque again (cutting back Congress's appetite for spending ought to be one: this is already out of control). The character of Mr Clinton's presidency did not fully emerge for two years, until after the 1994 mid-term elections. The same may prove true for Mr Bush. But in the battle between the Reaganesque and Clintoniansides of him, the circumstances of the next year or so surely favour the latter.