AMERICA'S new battlefield is a figurative stone's throw from the White House: It's Congress. Fresh from military victory in the Gulf, President Bush now enters what promises to be a tougher fight, trying to get a Democratic-controlled Congress to approve his brand of domestic proposals, from transportation to crime to energy.
This fight won't be easy as the one against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. ``These are very difficult issues,'' says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. ``Solving them is not as easy as winning the war in the Gulf.''
Nevertheless Mr. Bush and congressional Republicans are going to try. ``We're going to see the president drawing on the popularity of the war and trying to push an agenda,'' Mr. Thurber says.
``There is a little bit of a new George Bush here,'' says David Mason, federal liaison of the Heritage Foundation, referring to the president's reputation for being much more interested in foreign affairs than domestic issues. ``If he continues to sell the domestic policy issues, it's going to help him maintain his popularity,'' now at a stratospheric 90 percent approval rating.
Democrats object to the implication that they are just so many potted plants on Capitol Hill, doing nothing but waiting for the president to exert domestic leadership.
``The Democrats have been pursuing an aggressive domestic agenda'' on Capitol Hill since the new Congress convened in January, says a Senate leadership aide, noting among other things that both Senate majority leader George Mitchell and Speaker of the House Thomas Foley have spelled out their domestic legislative agendas for this year. ``We welcome Bush's willingness to join us'' in pursuing domestic issues, she adds.
The president says he will push first for transportation and crime measures. Democrats are talking about their version of civil rights legislation, education, jobs, family leave, and tax fairness.
If both Republicans and Democrats press their agendas, will many new laws be passed this year? Yes and no, say the experts.
A number of laws that deal with domestic issues will be passed, says political scientist Thomas Mann, of the Brookings Institution. But there won't be any proposals that make major inroads into the big problems, such as inadequate health care, poverty, urban violence, he adds.
Politics is part of the equation, as it usually is in Washington. With the president's enormous popularity in the wake of the Gulf war Senate and House Democrats have become ``increasingly concerned about their position in Congress'' in the 1992 election, says Mr. Mann, and ``a little fatalistic'' about their presidential prospects.
Although President Bush ``is in very good shape'' politically for next year's election, ``he can't appear to be unconcerned about our domestic well-being,'' Mann adds. Thus the president must keep talking about domestic issues and must have several domestic-policy proposals in Congress to refer to, Mann says.
``There is going to be lots of talk, lots of hearings,'' Mann says. ``But the ingredients are not going to be there for any real breakthroughs in social policy.''
What's needed is a demonstration of commitment and skill from both parties to grapple with complex domestic issues and solve them, political scientists say.
Focusing on only a few issues at a time would improve the president's prospects for success with his own agenda, Thurber says. ``Bush has always had the problem of too many issues on the agenda. He has not yet discovered what Reagan knew, that the route to success with Congress is pick two or three important issues, win on them, and then push on to other issues.''
Bush recently made a start in the direction of simplification when he spoke of asking Congress to work first on transportation and crime bills, and moving later to other issues. But unless he suddenly decides to stick with a Reagan-sized agenda of two or three items at a time, Thurber says, ``there will be guerrilla warfare'' this year between Bush and the Democrat-led Congress on a number of issues.
Conservatives suspect this year also will see Democrats using months of delaying tactics to prevent Bush proposals from coming to a vote. ``I would never underestimate the ability of Congress to delay,'' warns Mr. Mason. Because of the chief executive's enormous present popularity, Democrats ``are not going to attack George Bush frontally'' by trying to defeat or reshape his proposals in prompt congressional votes, Mason says.
``The problem for the Democrats,'' he adds, ``is that the clock is relatively short in political terms'' - only a year and a half to election. Thus before year's end Democrats will have to act on Bush's proposals and produce their own, Mason says, or else they will move into an election year with neither programs nor candidates.