George Bush has always been more a man of action than introspection. When faced with a complicated problem, he often plunges headlong into physical activity gunning his speedboat, pitching horseshoes, flailing away on the golf course. It is Bush's way, says an aide, to "drive those demons of indecision out of his mind."
So it was fitting that the hollow center of the President's domestic policy collapsed last Oct. 10 while he was jogging in Florida. Five days earlier, an unlikely coalition of right-wing Republicans and liberal Democrats had revolted in the House of Representatives, scuttling the deficit-cutting budget plan crafted during four months of tortuous negotiations between the Administration and congressional leaders. Only a stopgap continuing resolution kept the government afloat while frenzied efforts to devise a new deal bogged down. The sticking point: Would Bush agree to a Democrat-backed rise in income tax rates for the affluent in exchange for his cherished cut in taxes on capital gains?
For 24 hours, Bush had sown confusion by flipping and flopping on the issue like a beached bluefish. First he signaled that he would accept the swap. Then, under pressure from Republicans who argued that Bush's change of heart would only trigger further Democratic demands, his top aides announced that the deal was no longer acceptable. Now, as he jogged a few laps in St. Petersburg, the time had come for the Commander in Chief to explain himself. Asked by reporters to clarify his stand, Bush opted instead for a snide play on the campaign slogan that had helped get him the job in the first place. "Read my hips," Bush said with a smirk, and jogged on.
Read my hips. Was this any way to lead the most powerful nation on earth?
No, but neither was what the President did during the next 24 hours. Bush reversed himself twice more on the tax issue, completing a quadruple somersault that twisted members of his own party into knots, sent Democrats into orbit and helped cut more than 20 points from his approval ratings in the space of six weeks. That was the most precipitous dive in popularity, absent a major scandal, for any 20th century President.
A Formula for Ruling Forever
At that moment, many Americans concluded that in George Bush they had elected two Presidents: a highly capable captain of foreign policy and a dawdling, disengaged caretaker of domestic affairs. That impression was ! understandable but by no means complete. The shilly-shallying performance on domestic issues that has marked Bush's first two years in office is not the result of ineptitude. It is the consequence of a shrewd calculation made soon after Bush, one of the most ambitious and pragmatic men ever to reach the White House, assumed the presidency.
Shortly after his Inauguration, Bush and his top advisers figured that if the economic and domestic conditions that existed then could be frozen in time, Republicans could hold the White House indefinitely. That led to an obvious conclusion: do as little as possible. "We inherited a situation that was basically A-O.K.," says a senior official. "People were happy with the status quo. No domestic revolution was about to take place. With a few changes here and there, the G.O.P. could rule forever."
It is no coincidence, then, that Bush's highest domestic priority has been to preserve the situation he inherited from Ronald Reagan. Hemmed in, as are Democrats, by budgetary constraints, he has initiated only a handful of new domestic programs. He can claim some genuine progress passage of the first clean-air legislation since 1977, a new law protecting the rights of the handicapped, and a five-year budget deal that may finally force Washington to start living within its means. But most of these were long overdue or inevitable or were launched out of necessity more than conviction. Bush has devoted far more energy to thwarting Democratic initiatives or amending them in such a way that the Administration could share in the credit. As an official explains, "The key around here has always been stopping the Democrats. If we couldn't stop them, we tried the next best thing: turning the Democratic drive for reforms into G.O.P. alternatives. We wanted to try to turn an apparent political liability into something we could claim credit for."
In Bush's mind, the real business of Presidents is the conduct of foreign policy. He regards the management of domestic affairs merely as an extension of politics, the unpleasant, even silly, things one must do to win an office or keep it. When he delves into homegrown problems, Bush cares less about the issues themselves than their political implications. In foreign affairs the opposite is true: Bush resists pressure to view world events through a political prism, believing that the nation's long-term interests are often better served by sitting quietly instead of rushing to the ramparts.