Bush's domestic failings give Dems a wedge in '92 On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

May 31, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — Washington

THE DEMOCRATS are regularly being beaten about the head and shoulders for their failure to produce a coherent program that might make them competitive in the 1992 presidential election.

There is, moreover, some validity in the criticism. In the wake of the war in the Persian Gulf, Democratic leaders in Congress have seemed to be intimidated by the enormous popularity of President Bush. And their own attempts to offer solutions to national problems have been compromised by factors as diverse as the divisions within their own party and the paucity of leaders capable of defining the party's goals in a way the television networks will find comprehensible.

But the Democrats have a legitimate beef when they complain that the president is getting a free ride on his own inadequacies. In terms of confronting the real world of domestic issues, they are light years ahead of George Bush. The president's answer to the most complex issue is characteristically a quick-fix proposal that nibbles at the edges of the problem while conveying the impression he is making a serious effort to deal with it.

Bush's attack on the skyrocketing costs of medical malpractice insurance is a case in point. No one -- except perhaps a few lawyers -- would deny that something needs to be done to correct a situation in which physicians won't work in a particular specialty or a particular area because they cannot afford the insurance.

But neither would anyone imagine that dealing with the malpractice problem is the equivalent of dealing with the monumental weaknesses of the entire health care system. What about the lack of prenatal care for the poor? Why does the United States have such a wretched infant mortality rate? How can we provide care for 35 million to 37 million Americans with no health insurance?

Similarly, playing his self-defined role as "education president," Bush has come forward with some worthwhile and politically catchy ideas for establishing national standards for performance and running experimental schools -- at least one to each %J congressional district. But does anyone imagine that program deals with a situation in which schools are curtailing their programs and cutting back their hours because of financial strictures caused by both the economic decline and the sharp reductions in the federal role in helping state and local governments?

Nor are education and health care the only national problems that have reached critical mass. The economy is in a recession that may end before next year's election, but recovery wouldn't correct the underlying weaknesses and anomalies that are creating a permanent underclass of the chronically unemployed and underemployed. The environment is being jeopardized by assaults from all sides. Highways and bridges are decaying to, in some cases, the point of collapse. The drug traffic and the closely related urban crime problem seem intractable. The relationship between the races has deteriorated almost to the level that existed before Congress passed the Voting Rights Act 26 years ago.

George Bush is supposed to be the nation's leader. He plays the role to the hilt when he is swooping down on Manuel Noriega or driving the Iraqis out of Kuwait or winging off to summits with Mikhail Gorbachev or defining the terms of the U.S. relationship with China. But when it comes to the nitty-gritty of such prosaic concerns as health care, that same leadership is conspicuously lacking.

To some extent, this should come as no surprise. Presidents often prefer foreign policy to dealing with stubborn domestic questions on which any decision invites a barrage of second-guessing and recrimination. There is a pronounced reaction in the electorate these days against more "grand plans" for meeting domestic concerns; there have been too many failures. And the politicians in the White House know that the road to electoral success these days is the ability to project "values" the voters share rather than specific ideas that might cost money. It is much easier and more politically profitable to bray about "quotas" in a civil rights bill than to deal with racial alienation.

Choosing which parts of the job you do shouldn't be part of the job description for president, however. The office gives any president a unique position from which to rally the best minds and the best ideas for finding, for example, the answers on health care.

So the only inference that can be drawn is that George Bush isn't interested. And to the degree that is true, it is Bush, not the Democrats, who is failing to deliver.

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