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An Absence of guiding principle

David S. Broder
Friday, October 12, 1990; A21

Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared on Oct. 12, 1990.

The budget fiasco in the capital has left few politicians untarnished, but the damage to President Bush is particularly serious -- for good reason. The president has revealed to the nation's voters that you can't have the

courage of your convictions if you lack any convictions. He -- and we -- will be fortunate if that lesson is not seized upon by Saddam Hussein and other foreign antagonists.

Most other modern presidents would have gone into seclusion or ducked behind a screen of spokesmen after the kind of humiliation Bush suffered when House Republicans and Democrats rejected the bipartisan budget compromise he had strongly endorsed. But, to his credit, Bush came out to meet White House reporters and joined -- rather than attempting to stifle -- the critical discussion of the way he does his job. The result, unfortunately, was to show that however skillful and incisive Bush may appear to be in managing foreign policy, the intellectual, political and ideological underpinnings of his domestic policy are fragile straws.

In his introspective news conference, Bush confirmed what longtime observers had concluded on their own, that he has a much greater appetite and aptitude for foreign policy. "When you get a problem with the complexities . . . that the Middle East has now and the Gulf has now, I enjoy trying to ... put the coalition together and keep it together and work toward what I think is a proper end. I can't say I just rejoice every time I go up and talk to Danny Rostenkowski ... about what he's going to do on taxes."

Bush is hardly the first president to prefer statesmanship on the world stage to bargaining with an opposition Congress, here symbolized by the Democratic chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. He's just more candid than most in admitting it.

What is different, however, is that Bush has reached the White House without ever pausing to reflect on what principles or beliefs guide his approach to that inescapable domestic bargaining process. He not only appears to be rootless, he is rootless. He occupies a philosophical ground as ill-defined as his geographic home bases in Connecticut, Maine and

Texas. And his attention to domestic issues never has been more than intermittent, driven more by political needs than substantive curiosity.

My guess is that the reason Bush cares much more about foreign policy than domestic issues lies in his personal history. Family wealth sheltered him from the consequences of the Depression, when the welfare state questions that still dominate the domestic agenda were formed. But his life was wrenched out of its expected pattern by World War II, teaching him before he was 20 that national security issues really are life-or-death matters.

Still, his lack of involvement in domestic policy is stunning. Although he served with Rostenkowski on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee back in the '60s, there is no evidence the experience deepened his understanding

of the revenue system. Even as vice president in the eight years of the Reagan administration, when the tax code went through several major overhauls, Bush managed to avoid thinking about the basic principles that should shape the code.

His original view of Reagan's crusade to reduce marginal tax rates was skeptical. The "voodoo economics" phrase he applied when running against Reagan in the 1980 primaries came from his aide, Peter Teeley, but it captured Bush's doubts. Once on the ticket with Reagan, however, he swallowed his reservations and kept them down during all his time as vice president.

But his attention to the topic was fleeting and fragmentary. He lobbied for oil-industry tax breaks in the 1986 code revision as casually as he latched on to the proposal for a capital gains tax cut in the 1988 campaign and again this year.

This absence of a guiding principle, let alone an overall plan, has left everyone -- including his fellow Republicans -- in doubt about where Bush really is on the question of tax policy that has been one of the two or three real anchors of Republican politics for the past dozen years. His flip-flops this past week are not out of character; they fit a pattern.

That same equivocation applies to basic social issues, including abortion, education and affirmative action. And it applies to basic issues of governance, such as the question of term limits for legislators and members of Congress.

When asked about this last question, Bush began by saying that "we are committed in our {Republican} platform to some limitation," but added, in a remark that showed just how little that principle meant to him, "Whether I make that a prime mover in the political campaign that lies ahead in the next few weeks, I don't know. But I will remind people that's in there."

That kind of equivocation invites politicians at home to ignore or discount Bush's views. Fortunately, he can still "draw a line in the sand" of foreign policy and have it accepted. But his eroding domestic credibility will make even that strength harder to maintain.

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