It's true. George Bush is a wimp. A year or so back, that was common wisdom. But a good convention speech, a heroic war record, a bare-knuckles campaign, and a Snoopy-like opponent somehow made the country forget its initial impression of George Bush.
Nah, you started to hear, he's not a wimp. He's just a nice guy. Down-to-earth. Considerate. Writes nice thank you notes. Gives fun White House tours. Great wife. Big, happy family. Cute puppies.
All of that may very well be true. And George Bush may even possess physical courage. But when it comes to policy, Bush is a wimp. He lacks the courage of his convictions or, more likely, he simply lacks the convictions.
Remember cutting the capital gains tax? During the campaign, Bush stood up to relentless demagoguing by the Democrats over that one. He never really defended the idea, but neither did he back down. Until he got elected. Then it was Cave-In City. And when the idea resurfaced recently, it was paired with a gasoline tax increase. Whatever happened to "no new taxes"?
Bush also wimped out on tuition tax credits. Admittedly, he didn't exactly stress them when he was campaigning, but he clearly supported the idea. Then, one day in March, he announced to a bunch of high school students visiting the White House that he'd changed his mind.
"I think everybody should support the public school system, and then, if on top of that, your parents think that they want to shell out in addition to the tax money, tuition money, that's their right, and that should be respected," he said. "But I don't think they should get a break for that." The teachers' unions were ecstatic.
Then there's the minimum wage. The Democrats put forward a bill calling for a substantial increase. With enough votes to sustain a veto, Bush said no. Did he oppose an increase altogether? Of course not. He pushed a smaller increase, with a temporary "training wage."
What's baffling about all these examples is that Bush's strategy—if it can be called that—gives him all the disadvantages of actually taking a stand and none of the advantages. Democrats can effectively attack him for favoring the rich, undermining the public schools, and being stingy and uncompassionate toward the working poor. But instead of pressing his own case, he wimps out.
Of course, every president has to pick his fights. Maybe there's no way to keep the minimum wage where it is, even though everyone admits that raising it puts people out of work. Tuition tax credits are popular with the public but have never gone over terribly well on Capitol Hill. A lower capital gains tax might be good for the economy, but is it worth the political capital? Just because you don't go to the mat on every issue doesn't mean you're a wimp. You have to concentrate on what's most important to you. And Bush's issues are, er, well…
Therein lies the real problem. Bush isn't trying to concentrate his forces. He has no forces. His agenda is being set by everyone but George Bush. He simply reacts—to Gorbachev, to homeless activists, to steel makers, to pro- and anti-gun control lobbyists, to Congress, to a thousand pressure groups with a thousand demands. And while Reagan suffered from something of the same problem, he at least kept up the rhetoric and he did care about a few things.
Take, for instance, the Fairness Doctrine. Bush says he'll veto it if Congress passes it again. He probably will—but I suspect that's because Reagan told him he'd never speak to Bush again if he didn't. Certainly, no one expects Bush to appoint Reagan-style deregulators to fill the FCC's several vacancies. Where Bush has stood firm, most notably on income taxes, it's because he adopted rules of behavior from Papa Ron. Again, reaction.
Or consider the MX/Midgetman debate. Forced to decide which missiles to go with, Bush made the most wishy-washy decision possible. He took the dim sum approach—a few of these and a few of those. Now, it's theoretically possible to cook up some military argument to justify buying a few of both kinds of missiles. But nobody even tried to hide Bush's real motive: he was taking the wimpy way out.
So what's wrong with wimpiness? Maybe America is ready for a kinder, gentler, less intrusive presidency. In some ways, that's undoubtedly true. It is kind of nice to have an unpretentious guy taking tourists out of the White House line to show them the president's real living quarters.
But you don't have to be wimp to be a nice guy. Good ole Jerry Ford, about whom just about everybody had something good to say, vetoed bills like crazy. (Sure, he lost the election. But if it hadn't been for the pardon and that silly remark about Poland, he might have pulled it off.) Indeed, if Bush is really such a good guy, he ought to use his enormous personal popularity to push a few programs.
Wimps are dangerous. They don't know what they want. That they can be pushed around is bad enough. But then there is the ever-present danger that they'll take one push too many, suddenly snap, and do something rash to prove their manhood.
As I write, Panama is in crisis. Whatever the United States does or doesn't do will have serious consequences and substantial drawbacks. And George Bush is posing for pictures with his new friend and advisor, Jimmy Carter.
Think about it. And tell me it isn't just a teensy bit scary having a wimp as president.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "What a Wimp".