Bush Wavers Between Strategies

Some aides say he should follow Truman's approach of not compromising with Congress. TRUMAN OR EISENHOWER?

THE tug of war over the next George Bush, the one that will face a somewhat emboldened Congress two months from now, is between two models: Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. Some of the president's staff members are urging him to look beyond what one calls the ``ground game on Capitol Hill'' that he has played so far.

Instead of always standing ready to split the difference with his rivals, he should stand his ground, spell out his agenda, and force opponents into fighting or switching, these members say.

The model for this strategy is Mr. Truman, a Democratic president whose party's losses in his first midterm election and his unpopularity dwarfed those of Mr. Bush.

Bush has already made a nod toward emulating that strategy since last week's elections. He is again drawing an emphatic line against increases in tax rates - although not with the memorable punch of his read-my-lips pledge.

Truman, facing one of the only Republican-controlled Houses in decades, responded to a bruising setback in midterm elections by making a key decision. He decided to become the protector and expander of the New Deal legacy.

In the short run, that did not gain Truman many legislative wins. But both Truman and his agenda fared well over the years.

For the Truman strategy to work for Bush, says Truman scholar Alonzo Hamby of Ohio University, he ``would have to set himself up much more emphatically as the defender of the Reagan revolution.''

At the heart of the Reagan revolution, of course, are low taxes.

Bush, however, has taken more of an Eisenhower approach to domestic politics. Eisenhower, a Republican, was never confrontational, says Eisenhower expert Fred Greenstein of Princeton University. His rhetoric was always presidential, above the fray.

``Eisenhower would never have had the Willie Horton, read-my-lips element,'' says Dr. Greenstein, referring to the attack television commercials the Bush presidential campaign produced in 1988 and his stark convention pledge not to raise taxes.

Although Bush has shown a tougher side on occasion, cooperation and compromise have been taken as facts of life at the White House because Democrats control Congress. But some see the political whipping the Republicans took in the budget brawl this fall as a lesson about the dangers of cooperative politics.

Opinions still differ among Republican insiders, even among those promoting Truman-style confrontation on domestic issues.

Charles Black, the spokesman for the Republican National Committee, says that Bush can afford to stand in sharper opposition to Congress now. ``The hard stuff on the president's legislative agenda is done,'' he said at a Monitor breakfast last week, citing the new Clean Air Act, the budget deal, and child-care subsidies. ``I think if he chooses to he can be more confrontational.''

Dr. Hamby looks at Bush's situation and notes that the Truman strategy may be the ``only feasible thing to do.''

Truman adopted a two-track strategy, Hamby says. He was cooperative and credit-sharing with Congress on foreign affairs, leading to such achievements as the Marshall Plan. But on domestic policy, after some messy wrangling similar to Bush's recent budget dust-ups, he settled on a clear and decisive agenda.

Bush is expected to be on the defensive as soon as Congress meets again in January. He has already hinted that he may respond to new efforts to levy a surtax on million-dollar incomes by again pitching for a cut in the capital-gains tax.

Republicans acknowledge they botched the politics of raising taxes last month. Next time Bush aims to be squarely on the side of no more taxes. Moreover, some Democratic strategists expect Bush will need to shore up his conservative base during the next Congress. The most obvious way is to regain his anti-tax credentials.

The key to Truman-like stands, says a White House official, is that even while they are unpopular on Capitol Hill, they represent majority views among the public. ``If you're pretty sure you've got a majority, it's pretty smart to polarize,'' the official says.

Some White House members also hope the president takes up a more positive domestic agenda than just fending off Democratic challenges to Reaganism. ``If he's just opposed, then he's not Truman, he's Ford,'' says the official.

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