President Bush, going into tomorrow night's debate over domestic issues with the Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), will be defending the smallest domestic agenda a first-term president has had in at least 44 years.
That's the conclusion of a new Brookings Institution study by Paul C. Light, a professor at New York University's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service. Light, comparing Bush with his eight most recent predecessors going back to John F. Kennedy, finds that the incumbent ranks last in the number of "major legislative proposals" on his agenda.
Bush largely continues a pattern of shrinking domestic agendas, in part because tax cuts have dried up funds for new initiatives. Kennedy and Johnson had 53 major domestic proposals in the 1961-64 term; Nixon had 40 in his first term; Carter, 41; Reagan, 30; George H. W. Bush, 25; Clinton, 33; and the current president, 18. That means Bush's agenda is less than half as extensive as Nixon's from 1969 to 1972 and not quite two-thirds as big as Reagan's in 1981-84. Light calculates that Bush has proposed only five "large new" programs.
Light grants that Bush's few domestic agenda items have been "undeniably bold": tax cuts, education legislation, prescription drugs under Medicare, a homeland security department and proposed Social Security changes. But he says "it is not clear" that the emphasis on terrorism is responsible for the paucity of Bush domestic proposals -- even before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Bush had the fewest first-year, first-time proposals by a "substantial margin."
Bush's trademark, as president and Texas governor, has been to emphasize a few key policies rather than a lengthy wish list. Although government spending has increased rapidly on his watch, he has pledged his commitment to a smaller federal government. Also, Light points out that agendas have shrunk overall because the 1981 tax cuts took away funds for potential new programs, a pattern accelerated by Bush's tax cuts and the federal government's swing from surplus to deficit.
Light's criteria for a "major" proposal, used in two previous books on the topic in 1984 and 1999, is that it must be mentioned in a president's State of the Union address or similar message to Congress, must be drafted as a legislative proposal and must be included in Congressional Quarterly's coverage of major legislation.
Primaris, the one-plane airline the White House has hired for the suspected purpose of eliminating the White House press corps, continues its descent into aviation history. On one flight, a television news producer was disconcerted to feel something fall in his lap on takeoff: It was a sheared-off screw of unknown origin. On another flight, a jetway rammed the plane, cracking the plastic inside of a forward door, which was patched with duct tape.
Then, last week, in Akron, Ohio, the pilot announced some "bad news": The starter in the starboard engine would not start. While a mechanic removed engine parts and put them on the tarmac, and some White House aides were quickly put on a cargo plane back to Washington, the press corps was taken to a nearby bar until a backup plane, flown by ATA, got them on their way -- six hours late. Some reporters rented cars to drive back to Washington or to stay overnight in Akron.
Listeners were puzzled when President Bush, in Friday's debate, said he would not appoint a Supreme Court justice who supported the 1857 Dred Scott decision justifying slavery. Nobody was expecting Bush might appoint a pro-slavery judge, so the remark seemed to be another case of quirky Bush speak, as when he referred to urban brownfields as "sore spots."
But, in fact, the Dred Scott reference was something of a coded message to abortion opponents, who have long likened the injustice of the case to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on abortion. The National Right to Life Committee has said the reasoning in the two cases is "nearly identical" and that "unborn children are now the same 'beings of an inferior order' that the justices considered blacks to be over a century ago." The Christian Medical Association has urged Bush "to emulate President Abraham Lincoln's opposition to the Dred Scott rationale."
Will the "guy" from Ground Zero please identify himself? Bush has had some difficulty with his recollection, used to finish almost every speech about his moment on Sept. 14, 2001, atop the rubble of the twin towers. Back in February of this year, as the Web site Salon documented, Bush remembered "a guy pointing at me and saying, 'Don't let me down.' " In May, the figure became "a guy in a hard hat" and then "the firefighter." In June, he became an ensemble of "tired firefighters and police and rescue workers," who said, collectively, "Don't let us down." In July, it was "a fireman or a policeman, I can't remember which one, looking me in the eyes." Presently, Bush added to the tale, saying the guy "grabbed me by the arm." He then added "bloodshot eyes and sweat pouring" to the portrait.
In August, Bush said the fellow, "a firefighter or a policeman," was "looking through the rubble for one of his buddies." The "buddy" morphed into "a loved one" and "somebody that he worked with," then back into a "buddy." By September, Bush had dropped the buddy but developed new recollections about the guy. "I remember a guy grabbed me by the arm, a big old burly firefighter, I guess he was a firefighter. He said: 'Do not let me down.' "