Bush, guardian of status quo

Dan Rodricks

February 17, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

All right, so he's not a visionary. George Bush was never one for "that vision thing." And I know from watching Dana Carvey on "Saturday Night Live" that Bush's credo has been "stay the course." Still, when I hear the president say he will offer no quick fix, no gimmicks, nothing fancy in the way of remedies for the nation's economic woes, I hear a guy admitting he has no idea what to do.

I also hear a man inadvertently criticizing the Reagan administration -- and, therefore, himself.

Who, after all, offered the nation a quick fix? Rap Master Ron might be gone, but we are living through his legacy, and paying for it big time. And Bush, who was in the room while it all happened, certainly can't acknowledge that the nation's problems are deep-rooted. He was a willing co-conspirator. He can't separate himself from the historical record.

During the ballyhooed economic boom of the 1980s, Bush supported the same programs he once derided as "voodoo." He went along when the Reagan administration set a new agenda that, the record shows, benefited the rich, weakened the middle class, and put the finishing touches on a permanent underclass. Bush, one assumes, agreed with Reagan's persistent attempts to freeze the minimum wage. He was there and, one assumes, watching when the rich got richer and the numbers of working people who live below the government-set poverty line climbed into the tens of millions.

Being a foreign policy expert, Bush presumedly agreed that the way to bring the Soviet Union to its knees was to order a massive increase of the U.S. defense budget. Though he keeps blaming Congress for it, one assumes Bush gave his blessing to billions on top of billions on top of billions in deficit spending. Bush must have nodded agreement on deregulation -- from the savings and loan industry to poultry-processing plants -- and he stood idly by while Wall Street indulged in an orgy of corporate mergers. He must have concurred with the decision to withdraw federal support for programs designed to revitalize cities. He was president by the time the demand for food stamps reached record levels.

So, in one regard, Bush is wise not to offer a quick fix. Americans, who played along for a while, have had enough of that. They now see where it got them.

"We wanted Ronald Reagan to fool us," I heard a commentator say.

He did. And George Bush, more keenly cynical than his smiling predecessor, went along. The thing is, he hasn't figured out that the party's over.

Everyone else has. Especially young people.

The 20-something crowd seems particularly lost right now, caught between the last blast of the Baby Boom and an uncertain future. Millions of them have never heard a president give an inspiring speech; they have never been challenged to work for the good of their society, and not just for personal reward. They haven't heard a president talk about empowering the powerless, about preserving and expanding the middle class, about government providing more opportunity. Young people, in particular, can energize a nation. But they need leadership to do it.

Why all the sudden support for the slouch-shouldered, no-nonsense candidacy of Paul Tsongas in New Hampshire? He might be attractive to a populace looking deep into the future, wondering where the nation goes from here and how it gets back on track. And not just for the short term, either. The people I talk to think the country's economic engine needs a massive overhaul if we are to again compete in international commerce and take advantage of the huge opportunities that await the United States in a changing world.

We're looking for some of "that vision thing."

We might have finally realized that the choice of the next president does not boil down to that simple question: Are you better off than you were four years ago?

This time, we shouldn't allow ourselves to be fooled.

Two winters ago, speaking at a round-table sponsored by the New Hampshire Democratic Party, Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski was asked how her party might claim a victory in the 1992 presidential election.

"We won't win -- we shouldn't win -- being a kinder, gentler custodian of the status quo," she said. "It is a role that has already been taken."

The only role George Bush knows how to play.

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