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Big-Government Republican?

Analysis of a potential George W. Bush presidency.

by James Leroy Wilson
November 4, 2000

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Big-Government Republican?_James Leroy Wilson-Analysis of a potential George W. Bush presidency. At the time of this writing, chances are, I think, better than fifty-fifty that George W. Bush will be elected President of the United States. This is just six years after his first election to public office as Governor of Texas. Previous to that was an undistinguished business career that often depended on his father's clout and friends.

Am I concerned about this apparent lack of experience? Normally, I wouldn't be. Other Governors with dubious experience on the national stage have been elected President: Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter. Carter's outsider status in the post-Watergate era and his unimpeachable ethics made him an attractive candidate in 1976. Clinton's inexperience,
ironically became an asset in 1992 as President Bush was criticized for concentrating too much time and effort in foreign affairs. And both men had the reputation for great intelligence, which the voters often mistake for substance and wisdom.

But George W. Bush should be compared to Ronald Reagan instead, both Republicans who governed a large border state for several years. Neither have a reputation for intellectualism, neither could be mistaken for career politicians as both became first-time political candidates at a relatively late age, and Governor is the only elective office they held at any level before seeking the Presidency. On paper, Bush appears as qualified as Reagan was.

Of course, circumstances are different. In 1980, the United States was weakened by inflation, energy crises, the Iranian hostage crisis, and the Soviet Union marching into Afghanistan and elsewhere. Keeping Carter would have been like rehiring an NFL coach who goes 4-12. It isn't all his fault, but a change is understandable. In the year 2000, inflation is conquered, employment can't get much lower, and it is the United States which wields its big stick with impunity on the international stage. Why defeat the successor of President Clinton with a man new to ways of Washington?

Why, indeed? Perhaps most disturbing about Bush's campaign is that it is not ready to go on offense against the Democrats. Reagan's advantage against his Republican rivals was that he would set an agenda different from traditional Republican budget hawkishness, communist containment, and resigned acceptance of Democratic Congressional majorities. By
prioritizing tax cuts and rolling back communism, Reagan went on offense against the Democratic-controlled Congress by setting new domestic and
foreign agenda. In so doing he won the hearts and, especially, the minds of many Americans and his message resonates still.

Under Bush's father, the Cold War was finally won but the old Republican orthodoxy of budget hawkishness and compromise with Democrats returned. President Bush's defeat in 1992 can be attributed to his own failure to
understand and implement Reagan's domestic vision. But the statist proposals of the early years of the Clinton administration created an opportunity that Newt Gingrich exploited with the Contract With America and Republican sweep of both Houses of Congress. While that Contract had some bad ideas that were reversed in Court or never passed, and while the GOP leaders were ceaselessly confounded by the attack rhetoric of Clinton and Congressional Democrats, Republicans should get the lion's share of credit for welfare reform and budget surpluses, both immensely popular.

Unlike Reagan, Bush is already in a position of strength and in a better position to go on offense. If the Republicans sweep Congress again, a golden opportunity presents itself. Building on the momentum of welfare reform and surpluses, Republicans have the opportunity to reform or cut other federal programs and therefore set a future in which people have more choice in their own lives and less social engineering from Washington. So what is Bush saying? Aside from his modest Social Security reform proposal, a modest school voucher proposal, and cutting taxes (which is now entrenched Republican orthodoxy), much of what Bush says is "Me, too." The Democrats want a prescription drug entitlement? Me too. The Democrats want a patients' Bill of Rights? Me too. The Democrats want to increase federal education spending? Me too. Bush is proud of his record in Texas, in working with Democrats to get bills passed. Is that what Republicans want, a Republican President who implements a Democratic agenda?

Did Bush want to become Governor of Texas to beat Ann Richards out of revenge for her "born with a silver foot in his mouth" comment about his father? Is he now seeking the Presidency to get back at Clinton, who defeated his father? These are admittedly unfair questions, and there might be more behind the man then his record and rhetoric indicates thus far. Bush is clearly a capable politician; he wouldn't be in this position if he wasn't. And I don't fault him for finding out relatively late in life that he liked politics and was good at it. But during those years of partying and failing businesses, what was it that finally led him to politics?

Is he passionate about his beliefs? What ideas drive him? What principles guide him? What I hear from Bush is talk about "trusting the people, not the government," but he proposes no budget cuts. He speaks out of feeling, but there is little evidence that he has the depth of conviction that Reagan had; there is little evidence that he has any genuine political philosophy beyond rehashed conservative cliches. And this is where the question of whether he is "ready" to become President must be asked. I don't disqualify him because of his past; I don't question his intelligence, knowledge, experience, skill, or ethics. But where is the substance? Where will he lead us?

My suspicion is that we are dealing with a Republican who might be as amiable as Reagan but whose proud "bipartisan" statemanship will lead to bigger and bigger government at a time when we can make do with less and less.

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