George H.W. Bush

Selected Skirmishes: Out of the Bush


The American public has done for the Grand Old Party what four consecutive Republican National Conventions could not: They have weeded out George Bush. The Republicans should be thankful for the gardening assistance.

And at long last President Clinton will do for the Republicans what President Bush could not: focus them on "the vision thing." Having campaigned as a Republican out in front of camera-shy liberal Democrats, Gov. Clinton will soon assume office as a political Everyman. He told America: You got a problem? I got a program! Hit it, Arlo: You can get anything you want…at Slick Willie's restaurant.

Clinton's greatest moment on the stump was his challenge to the American voter. He solemnly asked: "Do you have the courage to change?" Courage? To grab a middle-class tax cut? To get employer-paid health insurance? To see the deficit magically vanish by virtue of economic growth? To tax the rich? Hey, no guts, no glory.

Well, I suppose that this ferocious Pander Bear might scare some small child, somewhere. Particularly if the tiny tot had taken to civics at an early age. If Clinton redeems his obligations to the Democratic Party regulars, this will require some others (read: middle-class taxpayers) to go without. The pantheon of the Democratic Party, not to mention the powers who rule Congress, did not sit way to the back of the Garden in New York just to get a kick in the pants. Now Mr. Clinton owes them. Big time.

And the rest of us: Where's our cheap medical insurance? That free ride to college or that guaranteed worker training? My middle-class tax cut? Our jobs, jobs, jobs???

The surprise element awaiting Mr. Clinton goes by the code name, "economic reality." There ain't no money! The Clinton administration is praying harder than the Republican Pentacostals ever imagined for spontaneous economic growth, because that is their one shot to underwrite the promises of Campaign '92. The bond markets (driven down weeks before the election on just the expectation of a Clinton victory) are poised to head south again. Will Clinton drive up the deficit with more spending? Sell! Will Clinton sneak some more credit out of the banks to stimulate (inflationary) growth? Sell! Will Clinton make good on his programs? Sell! Sell! Sell!

Three Southern Democrats have been elected president since World War II. All three have been one-termers, driven from office in times of increasing inflation, government confusion, and social chaos. Harry Truman's plain-talking routine dissolved into "communism, Korea, and corruption"; Lyndon Johnson's Great Society turned into the quagmire of Vietnam and rioting in the streets; Jimmy Carter's man-of-the-people schtick became swamped by social "malaise." All three were elected by overpromising on what they could deliver. Slick Willie has already performed the first half of this self-inflicted one-two knockout combination.

All of which give the decimated Republicans a future. When they come to their senses, such as they are, they will see that the removal of George Bush is indeed in the party's long-term interest. The Bush presidency was a perpetual pinball game, bouncing off the walls of political opposition but never scoring on its own. George slid into office as the "kinder and gentler" Republican, underscoring that he was no Ronald Reagan. Sadly for George, this was the one message he communicated better than anticipated.

But George was no Democrat either; he liked to tell the American public that he wasn't like those tax-and-spend liberals in Congress. But what were you, George? Are you for tax cuts, or tax increases? Well, yes and no. Spending constraints? Sometimes. Deficit reduction? Let me see—what's the Democratic position on that?

The classic Bush policy initiative was his moratorium on federal regulation. Last January, buffeted by the cold winds of the Republican right, President Bush was desperate to come up with a forceful means to jump-start the U.S. economy. Among the options available to a president of the United States, he selected federal spending caps (which he quickly and quietly abandoned, rather than force a fight with Congress) and a 90-day freeze on new federal regulations. Sounds reasonable, perhaps: Get those crazy, runaway bureaucrats to sit tight and just reflect on their anticonsumer ways for a few days.

But recall that every one of those wacky, nutty regulatory bodies was run by…appointees of the Bush administration. Why would you want to hold up your own commissioners, carefully selected to push competition and deregulation for an appreciative Republican-voting America? But the president told us he was going to stop his guys from ruining the economy. Vote for me—I won't let my people do a thing! (So proud was the administration of this brainstorm, apparently, that Bush proposed extending the freeze to one year in his Houston acceptance speech.) A thousand points of light might be on, but it was clearly time to change George's bulb.

A perfect job for the Democrats, for they will both unscrew George and focus a spotlight on their own inability to govern reasonably. Bill Clinton will reinvigorate the mandate for lower taxes, less spending, and fewer promises in a way that George Bush never could. The Democratic special interests will be back at the trough, and boy are they hungry.

Over the next four years, go long on term limits, a balanced-budget amendment, and an EPA edict declaring Pander Bears to be an endangered species.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.