Keeping the War Alive

March 19, 1991|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago. The president is high in the polls -- as high as Harry Truman and Winston Churchill at the conclusion of their war, the last world war. Churchill lost his next election and Truman left office in 1952 after sinking to record lows in the polls.

I do not expect anything similar to happen to George Bush. But those examples show how dangerous it can be to ''sit on your lead'' in foreign affairs while domestic discontents -- the primary ones voiced against Churchill and Truman -- are allowed to grow.

Despite those lessons from history, the White House has made a calculated choice to ignore (discreetly) domestic policy and to ''keep the war alive'' in the words of a White House official quoted by Fred Barnes in The New Republic. He reports that a February 27 council of Mr. Bush's principal political advisers agreed that he must keep the public attention focused on the war and its aftermath. Why? ''The answer is obvious,'' Mr. Barnes writes. ''[The president's] popularity soars when he dwells on national security matters, dips when he deals with domestic issues.''

Looking abroad, the president is treated as the commander-in-chief, even by Democrats. Looking homeward, he is asked to speak for class interest (by his own right-wingers clamoring for things such as a cut in the capital-gains tax) or he is denounced for doing that.

Mr. Bush's preference was clear even before his great success in the gulf. He would have been half-hearted about domestic policy in any case. But now his natural tendency is giddily confirmed. That does not make it any the less dangerous.

I am not simply talking about the good of the country, though that should be considered every now and then. Sending up shining missiles from a nation whose infrastructure is rotting away does not pay in the long run.

But even in the comparatively short run, Mr. Bush should be cautious, for his own political good. He may ride the war past the 1992 election; but all the while difficulties are accumulating as rapidly as the growth of the S&L deficit. If he wins again, he must govern for four years. The longer he leaves domestic problems unaddressed, the more difficult that is going to be.

Mr. Bush, for all his lip service to President Reagan while he served as vice president, is deeply at odds with the priorities of Mr. Reagan, who, all through his first term, was more interested in domestic than in foreign policy. By the end of his first term, even his wife was shoving Mr. Reagan toward a meeting with the Russians. That, she let people know, is where historical stature is achieved. In this she agreed with most modern presidents -- Republicans like Richard Nixon as well as Democrats like John Kennedy.

But Mr. Reagan had an audience responding to his tax cuts. He weathered the recession and made the economy the basis of his re-election drive. He knew it was the economy, not the hostages, that had defeated Jimmy Carter. In fact, most elections turn on the economy.

So Mr. Bush's choice, no matter how appealing to him at the moment, is risky, signaling trouble not only for the nation but for his own political reputation, and perhaps for his political future as well.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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