The New Republic | May 22, 2000
IN early 1998, if you had rummaged through the questions that pollsters tuck in, almost as afterthoughts, at the end of their surveys, you might have noticed something peculiar. Gallup asked people whether they approved or disapproved of the job performance of five past presidents: John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush. Kennedy, unsurprisingly, enjoyed the highest approval rating. But just behind him, right after Camelot, came—no, not Reagan—Bush. It wasn't a fluke. Again in 1999 and 2000, Bush scored number two, and these polls included every past president since JFK. More recently, of course, the people found another way to express their appreciation: they gave Bush's son the Republican presidential nomination.
This seems odd. Was Bush not the comma between two exclamation points, the amiable but underwhelming preppy whose one real success was the Gulf war and who even botched the aftermath of that? In Washington, conservatives detested Bush for raising taxes and losing the White House. Liberals dismissed him as Reagan Lite. Intellectuals ridiculed his sentence fragments and jumbled syntax. Activists scorned his caution ("Wouldn't be prudent!"). Political professionals despaired of his clumsiness. Journalists and editorial writers, not least at this magazine, found him mostly pathetic. Pretty much everyone regards Bush as a mediocrity, a footnote, an interlude between main events. Everyone, that is, except for the American public.
And the public is right; the contempt that intellectuals and activists feel for Bush reflects poorly on them, not him. In the standard post-JFK view, a president is meant to say and do great and mighty things: inspire the young to public service, realign politics, adopt big new programs (or, if you're a conservative, abolish big old ones). Bush is an object lesson in why that view of the presidency is wrong. And understanding why it's wrong sheds light on Reagan, on Bill Clinton, and, not least, on the peculiar predicament of Bush's eldest son.
Think back to January 1989. Reagan is leaving office. His record looks patchy at best. The Soviet Union is not only intact but fearsome; the Berlin Wall is still standing. In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas' Communist government remains firmly in charge. Reagan's spectacular military buildup has already given way to an almost equally spectacular build-down. The American military, having conquered Grenada and fled Lebanon, is still known more for its bloat than for its bite. The economy is expanding, inflation is down, tax reform has been enacted—all formidable accomplishments. But these accomplishments are imperiled. The economy is burdened by an alarming and rapidly rising public debt, which siphons off investment capital. Reagan has failed in his rather cursory attempt to scale back domestic spending. His astonishing deficits still rage uncontrolled. Much of his 1981 tax cut has already been taken back through tax hikes. In the savings-and-loan meltdown, the country faces the most alarming banking crisis since the Great Depression.
At this moment, the dorky Bush unpromisingly takes the helm. And he proceeds to do something Reagan rarely did: He takes responsibility.
He loses no time, for example, taking in hand the malodorous savings and loans. That a bad S&L situation was becoming a disaster was increasingly obvious as Reagan's second term wore on. Hopelessly insolvent S&Ls were gambling their depositors' savings on real estate and other dubious investments in a desperate bid to recoup deposits they had already lost in earlier dubious investments. Because the deposits were federally insured, it was really the taxpayers' money the thrifts were losing. If Reagan and Congress had acted promptly when the problem surfaced in the mid-'80s, the hemorrhaging could have been stopped at about $15 billion. But Congress dragged its feet, and Reagan, who knew a political loser when he saw one, was of no mind to force the issue. By 1988, the cost of liquidating the thrifts and paying off their depositors was growing by millions per day: $23 billion in early summer, $31 billion in July, $50 billion in October, $69 billion in November.
Within a month of assuming office, Bush proposed a rescue plan optimistically priced at $50 billion. He made its passage a priority, and in August the rescue became law. Now the whole nightmare is largely forgotten, a couple of paragraphs in finance texts—a fact that itself testifies to the rescue's success. Perhaps Bush deserves no special credit for merely doing what Reagan should have done much earlier. The point, however, is that he did it. Had Bush not put on his boots, waded into the sewage, and shoveled muck, the economy could not have subsequently expanded as it did.
In much the same way, Bush put to rest eight years of bitter and mostly counterproductive conflict over Nicaragua. Reagan was obsessed with the Sandinista regime and was determined to remove it. The Democratic Congress was equally determined to deny military aid to the antiSandinista Contras. The result was the Iran-Contra scandal and a policy whose wheels spun ever deeper into mud. Bush, apparently without a moment's hesitation, simply repudiated his predecessor's policy and embraced a regional peace deal that required the Contras to muzzle their guns if the Sandinistas acceded to elections.
Today it is hard to remember, or even believe, the bitterness that attended the Nicaragua question in Washington. James A. Baker, Bush's secretary of state, writes in his memoirs that his 22 days of shuttle diplomacy on Capitol Hill on the issue were "just as arduous and delicate an exercise as anything I would later encounter in my dealings with other countries." In March 1989, however, the Bush administration got its deal through Congress. Less than a year later, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas were voted out of office. Reagan's partisans can plausibly argue that the Sandinistas' defeat showed that, in the end, their policy worked. Given the speed with which the impasse broke once Bush decided to break it, however, an equally plausible reading is that Reagan's stubbornness retarded a solution for months or years. Either way, Bush cleared away the issue that had deadlocked foreign policy throughout the 1980s just in time to deal with the Soviet implosion.
The collapse of the Soviet empire may well have presented Bush with the most treacherous foreign policy environment since the Cuban missile crisis. Mikhail Gorbachev's position was precarious, and at any moment the Soviet Union might have ended in a violent explosion rather than the relatively calm implosion that actually occurred. Reagan undoubtedly deserves credit for restoring the pre-Nixon containment policy that finally pushed the Russians to the edge. He pointed American policy in the right direction, which was important. The really tricky part, however, was not choosing the direction but landing the plane.
German reunification, in particular, could have gone terribly wrong. It could have reignited the cold war, or even a hot one. "That was very tricky," says Ivo H. Daalder, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution. "This was what the cold war was about." East Germany was the linchpin of the Soviets' security structure in Europe, and even West Germany's European allies—Britain, France, Italy—were initially reluctant to see Germany quickly restored. Many Americans were skeptical, too, given the risks. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, if you were optimistic you hoped that the Soviets would allow peaceful unification of a neutral Germany. But if you had predicted the Soviets would let Germany unify within NATO, you would have been arrested on drug charges.
Reunification within NATO, however, was exactly what the Bush administration managed to broker. First Bush convinced Gorbachev that reunification was both inevitable and unthreatening, and then he convinced him that a Germany locked into NATO would be less troublesome to Moscow than a Germany on its own. Behind Gorbachev's back, Kremlin hard-liners vowed never to relinquish Russia's cold war prize—an outrageous humiliation, in their eyes. So Bush presented the Russians with an elaborate nine-point package of mostly anodyne face-savers. Astonishingly, it worked. On July 16, 1990, after joint talks with Helmut Kohl's German government, Gorbachev announced: "Whether we like it or not, the time will come when a united Germany will be in NATO, if that is its choice. Then, if that is the choice, to some degree and in some form, it can work together with the Soviet Union." At that moment, the cold war was over, and the airplane was on the ground.
In hindsight, the junta that subsequently tried to depose Gorbachev, thereby triggering the Soviet Union's final collapse, looks like a band of drunken clowns. Again, however, things might have gone very differently. The coup leaders promised to continue Gorbachev's policies and counted on the West to accept their seizure of power as a fait accompli. Bush, recognizing that the hard-liners didn't control the Russian army, refused. He demanded to talk to Gorbachev and established phone contact with Boris Yeltsin (Bush was the first Western leader to support Yeltsin publicly during the coup). "Coups can fail," he famously said. This one may have failed with or without American help. One can still wonder, however, whether Michael Dukakis, Reagan, or Clinton would have shown as sure a touch.
So the record begins to add up. If Bush had done nothing more than peacefully close out the cold war, clear up the S&L crisis, and lance the Nicaraguan boil, that would, I think, be enough to qualify him as an imposing figure among recent presidents, even (or especially) compared with Reagan. And then there is the Gulf war.
I opposed the Gulf war in 1990. It seemed to me that America's interest in rolling back Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, while important, was not worth the risk of a military quagmire. Surely the coalition would split, or sand would disable the helicopters, or the assault would bog down; and in any case it would all be fantastically expensive. To this day I believe I would have been right but for one thing: Bush. I won't rehash what is by now a familiar story—Bush's virtuosity in assembling and maintaining the coalition, the unwavering determination that brought Congress and the public around, the dramatic success of the war effort itself. As an almost comical frosting on the cake, Bush even managed to turn a profit on the war, since the allies overpaid for it.
The ending, plainly, was imperfect. Failing to disable the Iraqi Republican Guard was a mistake, as was failing to stop Saddam from using his helicopters and troops to terrorize the Kurds and thus reestablish his footing. Saddam has clung to power much more tenaciously than Bush, or anybody else, expected. Still, while the ambiguous ending diminished the triumph, it did not vitiate it. Reagan restored America's confidence, but Bush showed what American confidence meant. Bill Clinton and the country are still drawing on the credit that Bush built up.
Clinton's proudest accomplishment, and Vice President Al Gore's strongest selling point, is the remarkably robust economy. Fair enough; Clinton (and Alan Greenspan) deserve praise. But Clinton could never have done what he did without Bush.
When Bush took office, Congress had managed, with Reagan's grudging and sporadic support, to reduce the deficit to just over three percent of the gross domestic product, from a 1983 peak of almost twice that. But the outlook was not good. Structurally, the budget was still out of whack. In 1990, as the economy slowed, red ink began spilling over the dam. The $100 billion "baseline" deficit projected in early 1990 (for fiscal 1991) had turned into about $160 billion by summer.
In 1988, Bush had made a foolish promise: "Read my lips: No new taxes!" The promise was irresponsible, but it was a political milestone, and there was no going back. The Republican Party became the "No new taxes" party, as it still is. (Today, you don't need to be pro-life, pro-gun, or anti-gay to be a good Republican, but you do need to be anti-tax.) Trapped by his own words, Bush found himself in an excruciating position. He could do the right thing politically or the right thing fiscally, but not both.
In June 1990, after weeks of deadlocked talks with the Democratic Congress, Bush published a statement acknowledging that "tax revenue increases" would be part of a budget package. In other words, he betrayed his conservative base to make a budget deal with the Democrats. Conservatives never forgave him. When he double-crossed them, he lost himself the presidency.
You can say Bush was politically naive, even suicidal, to break his tax promise, and you can say the promise was irresponsible to begin with. But you can't deny this fact: It was Bush's budget deal that broke the deficit's back. According to calculations by former Congressional Budget Office Director Robert D. Reischauer (using CBO data), in 1993 Clinton pushed through $433 billion in deficit reduction over five years, or almost seven percent of GDP. And the press is still congratulating him for it. But if Clinton was brave in 1993, what does that make Bush in 1990? His budget agreement—signed with Democrats, over his own party's opposition—reduced the deficit by $482 billion over five years, or close to nine percent of GDP. Relative to the economy, Bush's anti-deficit package was 27 percent larger than Clinton's.
Today, with the deficit safely extinguished and the national debt heading down, it is easy to forget how genuinely dire the country's finances were in the '80s. By breaking his promise, Bush put out Reagan's fiscal house fire, and he enabled Clinton and the strong economy to rebuild the house. Bush thus made two presidents' reputations and unmade his own.
Still unimpressed? Perhaps you think a really fine president soars on majestic wings of inspiring rhetoric and leaves behind mighty works. By that standard, Bush was indeed unimpressive. But that standard is wrong.
In November 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed the Civil Works Administration. Within several weeks it employed millions of people; by winter's end it was shut down. But those days are long gone. Today's enormous and arthritic government, with its dense incrustation of entrenched lobbies and permanent programs, lacks the flexibility to rebuild itself, much less society. When Clinton shifted from his massive and bureaucratic health-care-reform proposal to his long strings of targeted microinitiatives, he bowed before not only the Republicans but reality. Today, presidents' powers are limited, most grandiose reforms are folly, and lofty rhetoric is no substitute for sound judgment in a tight corner.
A modern president is pretty darned good if he can cope adeptly with a crisis and otherwise avoid serious mistakes. The second criterion—avoiding major blunders—is especially hard for romantics and pundits to appreciate. But politics is a stream of temptations to pander, grandstand, and overreact. Consistently resisting those temptations requires maturity and toughness, as Bush's response (or nonresponse) to the recession of the early '90s makes clear.
A recession is the most perilous of times for politicians and for economic policy. Especially in an election year, presidents will do anything to avert a recession, including waste a lot of money or gin up inflation (Nixon did both). Night after night in 1991 and 1992, the newscasts hammered Bush with images of unemployment lines and layoffs. The politically smart thing would have been to promise some elixir to rescue the economy, as Clinton did with his "stimulus package" (which Congress mercifully rejected). The economically wise thing to do, however, was exactly what Bush did: nothing. The eight-month Bush recession was the mildest in memory, and it was over by the time it became a campaign issue. Stimulus then would have been pointless.
Bush's error was failing to explain why he was doing the right thing by doing nothing. But perhaps explaining would have been hopeless in any event. The voters and the TV cameras were in no mood to listen. Only today, long after the fact, do those voters seem to understand.
Of course Bush made mistakes. He understandably but tragically misread the breakup of Yugoslavia, believing the United States could stand aside from what soon became the Bosnian horror, which eventually sucked America in anyway. (Clinton, of course, did no better.) Bush was right to maintain Nixon's policy of engagement with China; but the administration's clinking of goblets with the Chinese just after the Tiananmen massacre was strikingly insensitive and stigmatized that sound policy for years to come. He championed the overly broad Americans with Disabilities Act, which entrenched and extended the metamorphosis of civil rights law from broadly guaranteeing equal opportunity to requiring discrimination in favor of minorities and minutely overseeing details of everyday life. Above all, Bush was a poor politician, and politics in its best sense--bringing the public along, making people feel led, packaging and selling an agenda--is part of the job. Even Harry Truman, who, like Bush, was both prudent and unpopular, got himself reelected.
Still, as presidential mistakes go, Bush's were trivial compared to Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam calamity, Nixon's inflation and wage-and-price controls and budget-busting entitlement increases and Watergate, or Carter's economic mismanagement and hostage crisis. Reagan was better, but he did to the government's finances what the iceberg did to the Titanic. Clinton, after two bad years, learned to manage the public and avoid big mistakes—but then came The Mistake, or, if you feel less charitable, The Crime.
The public may be coming to appreciate the sort of unglamorous, surefooted presidency that Bush represents. In both parties this year, voters flirted with big plans, blazing rhetoric, and "new politics" and then chose incrementalism, executive experience, and ordinary politics. In that sense, if in no other, George H.W. Bush will have some measure of vindication, even if his son loses in November.
The joke, however, may be on the voters. They wanted a Bush, and they got a Bush--but by all appearances Junior is no Senior. Senior boasted a deep, varied resume in government service; Junior counts his public service jobs on the fingers of one thumb. Senior was a man of substance over politics, even to a fault; Junior looks like politics all the way through. Senior was his own secretary of state, figuratively speaking; Junior leans heavily on hired help. Senior entered the presidency in the full ripeness of maturity; Junior--but this becomes cruel.
Come to think of it, the final joke may be on the Bushes, after all. The voters may decide they want someone uninspiring but reliable, someone experienced and substantial even if unglamorous and politically ungainly—someone, in short, more like President Bush than like Clinton or Reagan. And so they may vote for Al Gore.