When Pat Buchanan launched his presidential campaign, he called George Bush "a man of graciousness, honor, and integrity.…" Perhaps without realizing it, Buchanan identified the reason the Bush administration is in trouble.
Pundits see Bush lurch from one position to another and say the man has no principles. Actually, a deeply felt set of beliefs guides his presidency. To put it simply, George Bush is driven and motivated by niceness. He believes federal policies should be guided by the same rules that govern personal conduct.
It's easy to see Bush making the personal political in foreign policy. He led us into the Gulf War because you stand up to bullies. He stuck by Mikhail Gorbachev because you don't abandon your friends. He has given a cold shoulder to Israel—leaving aside any merits of the Arab demands—because Yitzhak Shamir is a rude, unpleasant fellow.
This highly personal foreign policy sometimes works. But nice domestic policies often cause unintended results that are downright mean.
Consider wetlands regulations. During the 1988 campaign, Bush made a nice pledge: "no net loss" of the nation's wetlands base. An avid hunter and fisherman, Bush recognized how nice it was to have plenty of duck ponds and cattail marshes.
But federal regulators considered "wetlands" any property that was under water for seven consecutive days a year. The government banned development on millions of acres—80 percent of them private property. Farmers, truck mechanics, and average homeowners saw the government seize their land without providing any compensation. They complained to Washington because taking away somebody's farm is very mean.
So Dan Quayle and other policy makers sympathetic to property owners tried to redefine wetlands so that they were indeed wet. Then outraged environmentalists took up the cause of swamp critters and cried "meanie." To placate environmentalists, the administration may revert to a wetlands definition that's nearly as expansive as the one that angered property owners in the first place. Whoever screams loudest—and last—seems to win the policy prize.
Similarly, the president zigzagged on civil rights because he couldn't decide which was nicer: redressing past discrimination with affirmative action or relieving current discrimination by ending quotas. He was torn between his sense of noblesse oblige and his gut feeling that everybody ought to play fair.
Likewise, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires lots of nice things—making apartments and offices more accessible to handicapped persons, for example. But suppose you operate an office in a townhouse, and federal law says you must spend $100,000 to add an elevator just in case a client or employee is wheelchair-bound. If you can't afford the elevator, you have to shut down your business. It's nice to have an elevator. But it's very mean when the feds force you to close your doors and put your employees on the street.
Or if you want to build apartments, it costs about $4,000 more per unit to make a building handicapped accessible. These costs force up the rent you charge. Very mean indeed.
Unless the president alters his principles—or abandons them completely—we'll see more niceness in a second Bush term. Because the Clarence Thomas nomination offended so many people, Bush won't appoint other thoughtful conservatives to the Supreme Court; only pleasant moderates need apply. No substantive education reforms, because they require nasty fights with teachers' unions. No tax relief or spending cuts, because either would hurt the feelings of George Mitchell and Dick Darman.
The president should realize he can't be nice to everybody. Leaders have to make tough choices. And when you consider throwing government power around, often the nicest thing to do is nothing at all.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "George Bush, Meanie".