State of The Bush Balloon

GEORGE F.WILL

January 30, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON. — If you get a girl up on her tiptoes for a kiss it had better be a humdinger. By improvidently implying that his State of the Union address would be a map to the New Jerusalem, Mr. Bush got the nation up on its tiptoes.

Some kiss.

It is a measure of the intellectual cotton candy that fills the mind of the administration that President Bush's associates advertised this speech as the ''defining moment'' of an administration 1,100 days old. The administration is sharply defined as an administration without definition.

This would have been dandy as Mr. Bush's first State of the Union address, but his third? He said the runaway domestic spending that has occurred under President Bush must stop. He said the explosion of suffocating regulations that has occurred under President Bush must stop. He is on the losing side of a monologue with himself.

Because Mr. Bush on the stump expresses synthetic sentiments in garbled syntax, Americans often wonder what he means. The answer may be that he doesn't mean anything very much.

He expresses mere proposals, not serious purposes. His rhetoric rarely rises to seriousness because it is just so much obligatory noise, necessary for presidential events but not otherwise important.

For example, Tuesday night he yet again feigned intense interest in a line-item veto. Periodically he asks the Congress for power to wield such a veto. The Congress yawns and Mr. Bush drops the subject. Three years ago he claimed presidents have the implied power for such a veto and was looking for a test case to try it. But in three years of looking has not found one because he is not really looking.

How about aid to give educational choice beyond public schools for inner-city parents of poor children? He's for that. But not enough to fight for it, or to raise a ruckus when the Senate last week defeated it on an essentially party line vote (led by Ted Kennedy, whose parents never chose to send him to public schools). This dismissive treatment of the ''education president'' is indicative. The Congress likes Mr. Bush but does not respect him because it doesn't have to, which is why it likes him.

The deficit? Tuesday night he denounced it while proposing tax cuts and other changes that will expand it.

Abortion? Once every January, on the anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court decision, he waxes ardent on the subject. But there is no follow-through.

Civil rights? He is for them, too. But he is opposed to quota bills like the one he opposed until he endorsed it.

Free trade? He's for it. ''Fair trade,'' meaning managed trade -- affirmative action for U.S. industry -- with quotas and guaranteed outcomes? He's for that, too. Backward reels the mind.

During the 1903 House of Commons debate on protectionism, Prime Minister Arthur Balfour said he had no ''settled convictions'' on the subject. This provoked an opposition MP to compose this doggerel:

I'm not for Free Trade, and I'm not for Protection

I approve of them both, and to both have objection

In going through life I continually find

It's a terrible business to make up one's mind

So in spite of all comments, reproach and predictions

I firmly adhere to unsettled convictions

Having such slight ballast of principle, Mr. Bush is immune to the charge that he is jettisoning it for re-election reasons. However, Republican re-election strategy is clear: Get Democrats into a bidding war regarding tax cuts. It is a war Republicans cannot lose, for two reasons.

First, Republicans have their hearts in it, Democrats don't. Democrats are still regretting the bidding war they got into with Ronald Reagan regarding tax cuts in 1981. Today they are eager to forget that they almost ''won'' that war. They had Mr. Reagan flanked on the right -- their tax cuts would have cost the government more revenue than President Reagan's -- until, at the last moment, Mr. Reagan trumped them by endorsing indexation of the tax code.

Second, if Democrats collaborate in further shrinking of the government's revenue base, they make the election of a Democratic president seem pointless. If Democrats no longer believe in government as an active -- spending, redistributing -- engine of egalitarian social change, what do they believe?

Mr. Bush's speech had a political logic borrowed from a memo written last Dec. 10 by Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas. The memo argued that Democrats' hopes for revival hinge on using defense cuts to finance domestic social spending that will buy the votes of swing constituencies, such as middle-class voters anxious about health care. Mr. Gramm believes Republicans can deny that opportunity by pre-emptively linking defense cuts to tax cuts. Mr. Bush did that Tuesday night.

The drama of 1992 will be in the Democrats' response to the dilemma of this thrown-down gauntlet.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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