Dirty Little Secrets

March 24, 1991

"The dirty little secret in Washington," House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt said the other day, "is that the Bush administration has no domestic agenda." Another "dirty little secret" is that there's not much the Democrats will do about it.

Unless the recession lingers a lot longer than most economists anticipate, Democratic prospects for overriding another string of presidential vetoes or defeating the Republican standard-bearer who signs them are slim indeed. President Bush seems content, for now, to keep the nation focused on his victory in a war Democrats largely opposed.

In proclaiming an end to the Persian Gulf war on March 6, Mr. Bush challenged Congress to "move forward aggressively on the domestic front." Citing a need for crime and transportation legislation, the president declared: "If our forces could win the ground war in 100 hours, then surely Congress can pass this legislation in 100 days."

Behind those stirring words were two boobytraps. The bills singled out were about the lowest common denominator for a domestic agenda that could have been identified. And the "hundred" days will largely be taken up by triumphal moments culminating in a Fourth of July celebration for homecoming troops that "they'll never forget."

As Mr. Bush works on the establishment of a "new world order" from new heights of personal popularity, power and prestige, the Democrats can nay-say his meager legislation, give the president a win on the domestic turf they claim as their own, or come up with their own national blueprint. That the opposition usually gains when bad things happen -- setbacks overseas, downspin in the economy -- it is not something to advertise. Democrats must find positive alternatives that capture the public imagination. So far, they have failed.

We suspect that there is a certain nostalgia among Democratic lawmakers for the good old days of Ronald Reagan. Then, at least, there was a president with a mission to change domestic policy radically by hacking away at the very government he was elected to lead. Democrats could counter-attack by evoking the New Deal-Great Society vision of government as a beneficent force.

Mr. Bush is a far more elusive antagonist for the simple reason that he is a man of government, not against government. So the basic ideological cleavage of the 1980s is gone. Democrats have to contend with a president who is primarily content with the status quo, professes domestic goals largely for the sake of appearances, stands ready to veto any innovation that is more than marginal, is protected from hard fiscal choices by last year's budget agreement and openly prefers foreign policy management to nitty-gritty combat with a Democratic Congress over domestic programs.

Washington's third "dirty little secret" is its contentment with a political arrangement that guarantees Republican control of the White House and Democratic control of Congress. The loser is America, which can and should become a better place.

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