George Bush will be speaking tonight on the state of the union both as president and as Republican candidate for re-election. Never before has he had such a dual role. It will not come his way again. He has said he won't opt for the "quick fix" to get the country out of the current recession but he has also vowed to do "whatever it takes" to win the presidency. These objectives are incompatible, but that will not prevent Mr. Bush or his opponents on the GOP right and the Democratic mainstream from pretending that they are.
For this night, and for many more, it will be Mr. Bush who sets the tone and agenda in Washington 1992. We would not be surprised if he asks for a 60- to 90-day moratorium on politics in the hope of putting together a grand prescription to numb the pain of recession. Nor would we be surprised if the Democrats go along while their party sorts out would-be nominees with wildly varying remedies.
Already politicians have hearkened to the lure of a "middle-class tax cut" that makes little economic sense. Already they have targeted the fire walls erected in the 1990 budget agreement in hopes of slashing Pentagon funds not for deficit reduction but for tax breaks and/or domestic spending.
What's wrong with that? Our answer is that politicians in their haste to do something -- to do anything -- about the recession will allow deficits to keep going up and up and up to stratospheric levels. Though some temporary respite from the recession is in order, it should not be obtained at the expense of the nation's economic future. For sky-high deficits lead to low savings rates that lead to lagging investment and continuing loss of competitive position.
The greatest danger we see in Washington in this election year is a feeding frenzy reminiscent of the insanity that gave us the 1981 tax-cut bill and the resulting decade of debt, deficits and deceptive prosperity. Recall that situation? President Reagan wanted huge reductions in marginal tax rates and when the Democrats saw they could not stop him they decided to up the ante. The result was a bidding war that some of the more responsible officials in Washington fear could be repeated.
So when the president speaks tonight and the Democrats give their official response, let the populace beware. Listen not so much to their rhetoric but for specifics on what is proposed.
This is a rare moment. The peace dividend offers the nation a chance to declare all-out war on the deficit. In the 1990 budget agreement, important caps were put on discretionary spending. The aggregate amount of these caps should be left intact. Still awaiting controls are runaway costs on government entitlement programs, but the recession forecloses significant action. Instead, look for an assault on the 1990 agreement and a cynical consensus on a tax-cut-and-spending package. Only Mr. Bush can stop this prospect. But he will have to speak as president, not as candidate for re-election. Don't count on it.