Things Have Changed...Since George Bush first waded into Washington politics
GEORGE BUSH came to Washington as a newly elected congressman 22 years ago this month. As he prepares to move into the White House, he faces a government and a political mood that are not unlike that of the late 1960s. And yet much in our political landscape is remarkably and irreversibly changed. Representative Bush from Houston heard President Johnson address the Congress in early 1967 and plead for financial and moral support for both his Great Society and his Vietnam policies. Congress was growing restless with both. Mr. Johnson eventually called for a limited tax increase to help fund these ventures - too little and too late.
President-elect Bush faces a country and a Congress that are at least willing to listen to his priorities, yet there is a similar impatience that Mr. Bush may want to do too much with too little available money. Bush wants continued increases in defense spending and greater efforts in education, child care, anti-drug initiatives, environmental cleanups, and much more. But he has the same revenue squeeze Johnson faced. And Bush faces budget deficits that are larger than the entire budget was back in fiscal year 1967! Here are some other continuities Bush faces:
Congress, the federal bureaucracy, and the American people nearly always give new presidents a honeymoon in which to try to make their mark. Despite the negative campaign and the fact that Bush merely won a job rather than a mandate on Nov. 8, the new President has ample opportunity to emphasize new issues, push pet proposals, highlight new needs, and help shape the nation's policy agenda. The Democratic Congress will doubtless continue to snicker at Bush's ``flexible freeze'' strategies. Yet lawmakers will still look to the White House for policy leadership.
The American people generally give high marks to presidents during the first year but are much rougher on them the longer they remain in office. There is good will toward presidents. People want presidents to excel and succeed. Yet there is also a general skepticism about whether presidents and other nationally elected officials really listen to or serve the interests of the average person. An overwhelming number of Americans have said, in surveys, that generally speaking, elected officials in Washington lose touch with people pretty quickly. Most Americans also believe that the government is usually influenced by a few big interests looking out for themselves rather than run for the profit of all the people. Most Americans also think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right ``only some of the time,'' and that when something is run by the government it is usually inefficient and wasteful. These public attitudes have been pretty consistent since Bush joined the government establishment.
Congress and the federal bureaucracy are willing to work with a president who is honest, open, and willing to work hard at the ABCs of being a good president - the alliance-building, bargaining, and consulting that are crucial to presidential effectiveness. Bush knows this better than most of his recent predecessors. The lessons of Vietnam, Watergate, and the Iran-contra affair are clear, as are the reverse lessons from Johnson's Civil Rights Act and Ronald Reagan's budget-cutting and 1986 Tax Reform Act victories. The presidency is always a vulnerable office. A president who bypasses constitutional and accepted political processes weakens the office further and pays an enormous price. Those who appreciate and develop the requisite skills of listening and coalition-building usually succeed.
BUT Bush faces a political system that has changed in a great many ways from the one he first knew a generation ago. Here are some of the notable changes on the political landscape:
Congress has a staff that is nearly four times larger than in the mid-1960s. Also, incumbents get reelected wholly apart from national election issues or presidential policy preferences. Bush got elected in a huge sweep of Republicans in a backlash to LBJ and Democratic policies. Nearly 50 new Republicans came along to Congress with Bush in 1967. That doesn't happen much anymore. Although Reagan brought several Republicans along with him to Congress in 1980, Bush won the White House in 1988 while his own party suffered net losses in congressional races. Nowadays, more Americans split their tickets and they consider different issues when voting for president and Congress. And members of Congress have learned to divorce their reelection strategies from their party and from whoever is in or running for the White House. This makes it harder to be president and takes away one of the key bargaining resources presidents once had in dealing with national legislators. Bush can count on having to deal in his second two years with both a Congress controlled by Democrats and a lineup of members nearly the same as he sees on Capitol Hill today.
There are probably about four times as many interest groups and lobbyists as there were back in 1967. And today there are more than 4,000 political action committees, most of which are located in the District of Columbia. Members of Congress get far more money for their reelections from these narrowly focused PACs than they do from the national and local parties. Money talks. PACs get listened to on legislative issues as much as, if not more than, the national party chairmen and the White House. Policy processes in Washington are probably more fragmented than ever, all of which makes it harder for presidents to build governing coalitions.
America's economic position in the world may still be impressive, but it is considerably less dominant than it was back in the mid-1960s when Bush went to Washington. We have become a debtor nation - and a big one. Trade imbalances have soared in recent years, and of course our deficits and debt are staggering. We now pay more for just the interest on the national debt than we did on all our budgetary outlays when Bush came to the Capitol - even at the height of the Vietnam war. We have been living beyond our means. There is growing belief that we are living off of funny money, ``borrowed'' from our grandchildren.
ALTHOUGH there appears to be a growing consensus in the nation about our relations with the Soviets and increased support for some military cutbacks, there is not much in the way of consensus about the policy agenda at home - in civil rights, affirmative action, abortion, crime and drugs, education, trade policy, and environmental regulation. There is little common ground among the Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson adherents. And Bush didn't help matters much by the way he campaigned in the fall. He won his job far less because he clarified issues or brought us together than because the economy was assumed to be good, because of improved relations with the Soviets, and because Reagan was exceptionally popular. Doubtless, too, he won because more of the voting public still favors moderate conservatism and lower taxes over the liberalism and expensive government activism traditionally associated with national Democrats. Still, even Bush now acknowledges that too many things have been left undone by government in the Reagan era. More compassion is needed.
The nation yearns for various improvements and innovations, and a national government (including a president) that understands the affirmative responsibilities of government in domestic matters. Bush vaguely appears to grasp this concept, and he is a welcome relief from the government bashers of the recent past. Yet he will have a challenge on his hands when he tries to fashion specific programs in the domestic, social, and revenue policy spheres. He appears least prepared on this front, less well-staffed, and he will face a public that is as divided on many of these matters as Bush is confused about which paths to take.
No one ever said being president was easy. And every student of government knows that governing is considerably different from and probably a lot harder than campaigning. Bush will find a lot of his challenges familiar ones, yet he plainly faces a political landscape that is much different from the first days he came to Washington.
The nation may be less divided today than it was over the Vietnam war and civil rights in his youthful first months in Washington. But the United States is still divided and in different ways and perhaps in more entrenched ways than it was back then. He will need all the help he can get to make our many-splendored, yet many-splintered governmental system work.