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Reality Intrudes

By DR / February 8, 1989



GEORGE BUSH's honeymoon had to end sometime, and tomorrow night will probably be it. That's when the President lays out his budget plans in a speech to Congress. That's when he gives us all a clearer idea about how he'll keep his campaign pledges, how he'll meet the Gramm-Rudman deficit limits, and how he'll change Ronald Reagan's lame-duck spending and revenue plan to do it. It never was going to be easy, thanks to Mr. Reagan's damn-the-torpedoes military buildup and early tax cuts. (And, to be fair, Congress's failure to hammerlock the deficit dragon as well.) And it won't get any easier; quite the contrary. If the administration and lawmakers don't make the $100 billion deficit limit for 1990, balancing the 1993 budget will be extremely difficult. The Congressional Budget Office, disagreeing with Reagan's rosy economic scenario, warns of an $80 billion budget shortfall instead of balanced books three years hence.

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Then there are the obligations for new spending: bailing out savings and loans, cleaning up nuclear weapons plants, and - perhaps the toughest problem America faces - stemming the traffic in and use of illegal drugs. Plus Mr. Bush's campaign promises: millions for topnotch public schools, finally doing something about acid rain, child care tax credits, incentives for urban investment, cutting the capital gains tax, etc.

So is that the sound of quacking we hear? Must there be new taxes to get government budgeting back on track? Not necessarily, and here's where Bush's special skills - and the opportunities of the moment - come in.

The new President has well-honed negotiation, arm-twisting, and schmoozing talents. This adds up to leadership, if he can make it work - especially with lawmakers (Democrat and Republican) who may have their own budget agenda. Early signals indicate he will do better than Ronald Reagan in this regard.

Bush also has a chance to take advantage of the warmer diplomatic weather around the world, mainly the reduction in East-West tensions that has seen Soviet-bloc troop withdrawals and the increased prospects for arms control. It's time to reexamine US military strategy in this light, including such cost savers as greater use of reserve units and cutting out duplicative weapons.

The honeymoon may be over, but the rest of a marriage is always more interesting and more fun anyway.