The Domestic Agenda

WHILE he may not be quite as popular as Michael Jordan, George Bush still has good numbers in the polls, and he's as likely as ever to dunk any candidate the Democrats put up next year. But he does have a weakness: a domestic-policy agenda that lacks real depth. The president tried to address that vulnerability this week. In an underplayed speech Wednesday he restated his goals of crime-fighting and highway building, chiding Congress for missing the 100-days deadline he had set for passing legislation in these areas.

But the administration's crime and transportation bills only underscore the shallowness of its domestic agenda. The president's crime bill was most notable for flimsiness on gun control and enthusiasm for capital punishment. It was not about to sail through.

The same is true of the administration's transportation bill. It is mired in debate over how federal highway funds should be allocated among states. Republicans and Democrats alike are piling on the mud.

The more profound issues facing the nation include health-care and education reform, and if Democrats can somehow organize themselves around such issues, they may yet offer the Bush team a contest in 1992.

The tenor of Wednesday's remarks overshadowed their policy content. Bush struck a more civil tone than Democrats had anticipated. He also distanced himself from the Reagan era's gung-ho reliance on market economics as the remedy for social ills. Compassionate government is important too, the president said.

We hope those words presage creative thinking about how federal leadership can initiate renewal in education, energy conservation, the alleviation of poverty, and other domestic concerns.

The last thing the country needs in the political year ahead is another campaign in which the issues rarely go deeper than who's tougher on crime.

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