WASHINGTON — Washington--THE SPECULATION about whether President Bush should use his extraordinary personal popularity to promote his domestic agenda is based on a totally mistaken premise -- that Bush really has a domestic agenda he wants to see enacted.
It is not just a question of a president who, like so many of his predecessors, prefers international affairs to the grimy complexity of domestic problems. Instead, Bush's lack of a domestic agenda worthy of the designation is a reflection of his reading of the national attitude these days -- and particularly the suspicion that grandiose federal programs never seem to solve the problems at which they are directed.
This is an attitude that veterans of Washington politics find hard to accept. The tradition here has been for a president, of either party, to present a series of proposals for changing the nation in ways that would fit his political dogma. But it is a tradition that was established in days when the economic pie was growing larger every year and the question was how to use the added resources to solve which national problems.
By contrast, George Bush has never been a politician with grand plans for change. During the 1988 campaign, for example, his domestic program seemed to be principally his promise, later abandoned, that taxes would not be increased. The one specific he promoted with any force during that campaign was his proposal for a reduction in the capital gains tax, a proposal that also has been put on the back burner for the time being.
Candidate Bush did offer a few other modest ideas, such as a plan to allow minor tax breaks to help young people finance their college costs. But those few proposals were advanced largely to meet criticism that Bush was not talking about "issues" but instead was relying -- as indeed he was -- on the emotional heat generated by the Willie Horton and Pledge of Allegiance questions.
Similarly, in his two years in office, the president has limited himself largely to proposals that would define his position politically. He has supported, for example, the death penalty for "drug kingpins," a favorite of the conservative wing of his party. And he has repeated the demand by Ronald Reagan for a line-item veto, an idea embraced by the far right but one the White House knows full well is not going to be swallowed by Congress.
Perhaps the most revealing insight into the thinking of the Bush administration was offered by John Sununu, the White House chief of staff, in an interview in January with David S. Broder of the Washington Post. "We may end up with not that much legislation being passed," said Sununu, "but people will understand much more the differences between Republicans and Democrats and why we need a Republican Congress."
What this means in practice is that the White House will use such issues as the death penalty to sharpen the perception of the differences between Bush and Republicans on the one hand and liberal Democrats on the other. The same thinking is apparent in the obvious relish with which conservatives look forward to another Democratic civil rights bill that can be rejected as a measure for the kind of "racial quotas" clearly abhorrent to most white voters these days.
The Bush approach does not suggest paralysis in government. There have been and remain some areas in which compromise plans can be written; the Clean Air Act is one obvious example. But it does mean that this president does not believe the road to political survival requires a series of 10-point plans to eradicate homelessness or provide health insurance to those who don't have it today.
The Bush approach illustrates quite clearly the critical difference between the two major political parties today. Although there are exceptions, most Democrats see government as an agent for change while most Republicans see it as both intrusive and ineffectual.
The evidence from the opinion polls is contradictory. It is clear that voters generally are dubious about "throwing money at problems," as the Republicans like to define the process. But it is equally clear that many voters are concerned about such issues as health care, homelessness, education and the environment. What is less apparent, however, is whether they are willing to pay for government activism to confront those problems.
As it happens, the continued budget deficit and the complication of the recession mean there is little money available anyway -- which is just fine with a Republican administration run by a George Bush.