Bush and Reagan: differences, similarities

`SIZING up'' the incoming Bush administration is the hottest new American political game. What will George Bush's presidency be like, in style and policy? How will it differ from Ronald Reagan's? This game is fun, and anyone can play. It's a hard game to ``win,'' however, hard to see at all clearly what's ahead. Already one popular opening has been proved wrong. Immediately after the voting Nov. 8, many analysts argued that the most prominent feature of Mr. Bush's first months in office would be the animosity he would face in Congress. Democrats, we were told, were deeply offended by his ``harsh,'' ``negative'' campaign. Now they would extract their revenge.

It took just one month to bury this assessment. The Hotline - an insider summary of political comings and goings - acknowledged last Monday that, ``with a few familiar figures appointed, a few kiss-and-make-up sessions held, and a few egos stroked,'' Washington was awash in bipartisan bonhomie.

If we want to get some firmer, early sense of how the new administration will likely differ from its predecessor, we should start with what we know about Ronald Reagan and George Bush. The American presidency is always shaped by personal attributes of the incumbent president. Since Bush and Mr. Reagan are very different sorts of people, their presidencies are certain to function differently.

Reagan is a poet-politician: He has set forth bold themes, inspiring supporters with insights into what they, like he, consider fundamental political truths. He has largely stood back from the administration of programs and policies. Bush, in contrast, is the seasoned manager - the career politician who has seen more of governing at the top than any incoming president, and who thinks he can be uniquely expert in running the complex engine of American government.

Their political skills are sharply distinguished in other ways. For example, Reagan is an exceptional public presenter of ideas; he deserves his label, ``Great Communicator.'' But in ``Q&A,'' the stuff of presidential news conferences, Reagan was never very good. President Bush will be much better - indeed the best of any president since John F. Kennedy.

Other, more personal characteristics should not be ignored. Reagan was shaped by the culture of small town, Midwestern pietistic Protestantism; Bush, by the ``civic culture'' ethos of the old Northeastern upper class. Reagan is rather reserved, aloof, and autonomous - remarkably so for a leader of such personal affability and grace. Bush is gregarious, far more inclined to seek out others than to seek solitude.

In policy, differences will be modest. The Bush administration of 1989-92 will closely resemble the Reagan administration of 1985-88 - being guided by what has become centrist Republican conservatism.

There is at times a surprising lack of appreciation of how much the national Republican Party has been transformed over the past eight years. The oft-heard suggestion that Bush will preside over the restoration of ``moderate'' Republicanism ignores the fact that the arguments that fueled the GOP's moderate/conservative battles of the 1960s and '70s are now confined to the party's fringes. On all the big clusters of issues - foreign policy, defense, taxes, and role of government - Republican factionalism is more subdued today than at any time in history.

The key test of this will be taxes. Look for the Bush administration to do exactly what the Reagan administration has done in its later years - apart, of course, from the 1986 tax reform bill, which was one-of-a-kind legislation. We must remember that Reagan accepted a number of increases in federal taxes and user fees. His commitment, strenuously pursued, was to resist any return to higher rates of income taxation (or imposition of any new broad-based tax, such as a value-added tax).

If ``read my lips...'' must be taken literally, the Bush administration is likely to back down. But if it is understood instead as a commitment to avoid the escalation of overall rates of federal taxation, which occurred over the 1960s and '70s - which is how I believe the public understood it - Bush can be expected to hold to his promise.

Whether Reagan's main policy initiatives constituted a ``revolution'' can be argued. They were, in any case, substantial, and they have been incorporated in mainstream Republican policy.

Expect George Bush to continue them, while adapting them to changing circumstances.

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