Bush setting a bold course

April 13, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Forty years ago, when John F. Kennedy assumed the presidency by a mere 114,673 votes over Richard M. Nixon, he declared that a mandate was one vote more than the other guy got. But he governed, at least in his first days, as a man who well realized he had been elected by the skin of his teeth and had a lot to prove to the electorate.

For this reason, and as a result of a careful assessment of the conservative strength in Congress, Kennedy for all his reputation as a champion of civil rights went slowly in dealing with this extremely sensitive issue at the time. He was in office two years before he introduced the civil rights bill that later was pushed through Congress by his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson.

Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy`s right-hand man in the White House, wrote in his book, "The Kennedy Legacy":

"JFK recognized that a majority in the Senate and particularly in the House consisted of Southern Democrats and Republicans unresponsive to either his ideas or his leadership. Until he could bring in a new Congress with his own reelection in 1964, he felt he could neither openly `declare war' on a Democratic Congress, as some urged, or abandon his most controversial legislative proposals, as others urged. His years as a young deferential congressman and senator, and his narrow margin of victory, caused him to move with considerable caution during his first two years."

Contrast that attitude with that of George W. Bush, who attained the presidency by the 5-4 mandate of the Supreme Court while losing the popular vote by 539,947 ballots, yet is pushing his so-called compassionate conservative agenda as if he got a clear mandate from the voters for it.

What's worse is the fact that what he peddled as compassionate in his campaign is turning out to be only a cold retread of Reaganism -- cutting taxes, services and programs to protect the environment and explore new renewable energy sources, as well as turning other functions over to the states.

Rather than demonstrating any Kennedy-like caution in the wake of an electorate that, to say the least, expressed reservations about him becoming president, Mr. Bush in his first budget indicates he is determined to push his excessive tax cut proposal through Congress no matter what it costs in other essential areas.

He is doing so with remarkable brass, considering that his Republican Party has only the narrowest majority in the House and controls the 50-50 Senate only by virtue of Vice President Dick Cheney's power to break the tie as president of the Senate.

It can be argued, and some supporters no doubt will, that unlike Kennedy, a selfless Mr. Bush isn't thinking about how his actions might affect his re-election 3 1/2 years from now. But the more credible argument is that as a plain-variety conservative he's locked into his deep tax cut as the answer to a government that is too fat, soft and meddlesome in the affairs of the people --especially business people.

Twenty years ago, the president's father, seeking the Republican nomination against Ronald Reagan, labeled the Californian's call for a tax cut, coupled with increased military spending and a balanced budget, "voodoo economics." He later ate his words on becoming Reagan's running mate, but his son is pushing at least two-thirds of the voodoo, not having to worry about balancing a budget now in surplus after eight years of a Democratic administration.

One of the great ironies in Kennedy's first-term caution resulting from his narrow election victory in 1960 was that his successor, LBJ, felt that the circumstances of his attaining the presidency required him to carry on JFK's mandate and legacy. He proceeded to engineer through Congress some of the most progressive social legislation since New Deal days.

The junior Mr. Bush's first-term boldness, flying in the face of his questionable "mandate," suggests he is determined to put behind him as swiftly as he can the circumstances of his attainment of the presidency. He is behaving as if he were doing what the majority of voters said they wanted, when the sheer numbers of undisputed votes tabulated -- no chads, dimples or undervotes --say otherwise.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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