George Bush has done what Ronald Reagan only dreamed about. He has lopped off the domestic branch of the presidency and made himself responsible only for defense and foreign policy.
In one of his spats with Congress over funding the government and paying federal workers, Reagan announced that as far as he was concerned only the workers at the Pentagon were essential. Bush doesn't know the federal work force exists. He skipped the months-long row over the federal budget, and he has forgotten everything he promised for education and the environment.
As the countdown for war begins, the president is in another world. He is reliving World War II (Saddam Hussein is Hitler) and refighting Vietnam. Dan Quayle has been drafted to assure us that we do not face another Vietnam.
The commander in chief is resolute and serene, although thousands of lives are at risk. He was born to lead a free world coalition (with a few Arab terrorist nations thrown in) and has no time for domestic drudgery. The Japanese are buying up our national monuments, Yosemite and Hollywood. He doesn't care; he doesn't even mind if Tokyo skips its gulf dues.
Even though the crisis is said to be at least partially about oil -- although Bush harps on its high-octane moral content -- he has not related it to energy at home. He never speaks of conservation; he spurns alternative sources of energy. His Energy Department has yet to produce a policy. In fact, reports from the department suggest that White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, whose proudest boast is that he opened a nuclear plant in his home state, is using the tension in the gulf to promote the future of nuclear power -- thus ensuring more strife and acrimony on the home front.
The president is untroubled by word from his military commanders that they may not be ready for all-out war. He could look out the window of the White House and see that a modest snowstorm has brought the capital of the Western World to a halt. He might feel a shade less omnipotent. Everyone here knows that if there were snow instead of sand in the desert, you could forget all about hostilities.
The cost of the enterprise might give pause to a strapped president. The current estimate is $30 billion this year, which would build a lot of bridges, parks, schools and homes for the homeless.
But politically, it is said, Bush cannot lose. If Saddam backs down, he is a world hero. If he orders an attack, the country closes ranks around him. If Saddam fights back hard, the country is as one awaiting the outcome -- although protracted fighting would be bad for the polls. If Bush prevails, and peace is restored, no one seems to have thought of the consequences in the region, beyond the fact that two despotic regimes that richly deserve oblivion, or reform, will be perpetuated. It will all be settled by the 1992 election.
And when it is over, will he come home? Will he contemplate the mundane? The recession, for instance. He finally, grudgingly, marginally acknowledged its existence the other day: "The recession, should it be proved technically that this country is in recession, will be shallow."
On Capitol Hill, a group of eminent economists, who noted that there are 7 million unemployed, were analyzing the problem that Bush has no time for. John Kenneth Galbraith of Harvard said that prophets of a "shallow" recession fall into two categories: "Those who do not know and those who do not know that they do not know."
Economist Robert Eisner observed that wars, in a dreadful way, can ease recessions. "If you get a job making coffins, you still get a job."
In another room at the Capitol, senators were considering another aspect of Bush's inheritance from Reagan, the $500 billion S&L mess. The Senate ethics committee is investigating a tiny corner of the problem, the slavish attentions of three senators to Charles H. Keating Jr., a buccaneer of the thrifts. They were slaves because of the deeper problem of campaign financing, which makes mendicants of all but millionaire office-seekers.
On the stand was Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the Banking Committee, who could not remember arranging a crucial meeting for Keating with senators. He said that he always thought that "the notion of the concept of a meeting was a red herring" -- an utterance typical of his sentence structure and his thought processes.
Bush pays no attention to the S&L scandal, even though he has a son involved. Nor does he give even lip service to the underlying problem, campaign reform. His concerns -- and his obsessions -- begin at the water's edge.