Bush Does, Too, Have a Domestic Policy, Either Too Passive or Just Fine


August 07, 1991|By BEN WATTENBERG

WASHINGTON. — It's said, by Democrats, that ''George Bush has no domestic policy,'' and that ''America is gridlocked.'' They demand of the globe-trotting president: ''George Bush, come home!''

Foreign policy experts who have been spectacularly wrong about foreign policy now say the best foreign policy is domestic policy. (My, doesn't a liberal arts education yield cosmic insights into all fields?)

The implication is that ''lack of a domestic policy'' will be a Republican burden in the election. We shall see.

There would seem to be two contested ideas in all democratic governments. Always. Everywhere. One is the activist belief: ''Do something, don't just stand there!'' The other notion is passive: ''Don't just do something, stand there!.''

The policy to Do Something is called ''liberalism.'' It is a perfectly respectable view. The policy to Stand There is called ''conservatism.'' It was expressed most clearly by Ronald Reagan: ''Government is not the solution; it is the problem.'' By ,, limiting government, say conservatives, the creative juices of the people can flow unimpeded, creating greater prosperity. That too is a respectable idea.

So, in one sense, Democrats are right. A conservative president is not going to have an activist, laundry-list domestic policy. He is always attackable for ''not having a domestic policy.''

One of my liberal heroes was President Lyndon Johnson. After five years in office, he went back to the ranch proud of his hundreds of ''signing pens,'' each signifying ''major legislation.'' Bush could serve for 25 years and not be able to express that sentiment, or want to.

What is bedeviling Democrats about Bush is that he is not quite a ''conservative'' president in the sense described above. His political philosophy seems to combine four adjectives: ''Kinder,'' Gentler,'' ''Meaner'' and ''Tougher.'' Because most Americans would endorse at least two of those four words (and some, three or four), Bush has ionospheric approval ratings.

The Bush people, for example, stress that they have done some fine, kind, gentle things on the domestic front. They point to clean air, child care, drugs and civil rights for the disabled. You can get an argument about these laws, but it's not exactly gridlock. They also point to proposals that the Democratic Congress has not acted upon: crime, energy, enterprise zones, educational choice and home ownership for the poor.

Domestic Bushpersons claim the ''budget package'' will cut the deficit, pulling interest rates down, spurring investment. They say their increases in ''research and development'' will make America more competitive. Bushies claim credit for the new immigration law.

That is fine new policy, but it bubbled up through Congress, before the White House got involved. Still, alert observers will note that George Bush is president. He signed the bill into law.

But there is more. Journalists tend to equate successful domestic policy with positive acts. But negative actions may be as important as positives. For example, Mr. Bush's threatened ,, veto of the minimum-wage increase kept the increase low and was ''domestic policy.'' (Liberals think that's mean. Conservatives think it's necessary. Take your choice.)

And consider the civil rights/quotas bill. It deals with our most important question: How are we going to get along with each other? Are the spoils to be carved up proportionally, on the basis of race, gender and ethnicity? I think that is the signal sent by the Democratic bill.

Mr. Bush's alternative is less offensive. His threat to veto the bill has already made the negotiated product somewhat better. That's policy. That's domestic.

Mr. Bush does have a domestic policy. By my lights, nominating Clarence Thomas is sound domestic policy. Sticking with foolhardy gag-rule abortion regulations is wrong-headed domestic policy.

The Democratic charge that ''Bush has no domestic policy'' is accurate except for one word. My word processor has a ''Reveal Codes'' key, which yields this reading of the Democratic statement: ''George Bush does not have a (liberal) domestic policy.''

I suspect the Republicans will accept that characterization. In fact, they will run on it in 1992.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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