WASHINGTON — Now President-elect Bush moves from campaigning to governing. For guidance in handling the presidential transition, George Bush would be advised to learn from Ronald Reagan's 1984 win and the start of his second term.
Like Reagan in 1984, Bush defeated his opponent but failed to make major gains in Congress and the nature of his mandate is challenged by the Democrats. Reagan also made a transition in 1985, not much less far-reaching than Bush's will be in 1989. Reagan changed his chief of staff, most of the senior advisers in the White House and many Cabinet posts.
Like 1988, the 1984 campaign was based on the status quo in terms of policy and a contrast with the opponent's record. Unlike 1980, the 1984 and 1988 campaigns didn't establish a clear agenda. Bush, however, has an advantage Reagan did not. Bush is a successor, and can use the transition to define his agenda.
Bush's great asset is the quality of his appointments. The choices of James A. Baker III as secretary of state and Nicholas F. Brady at Treasury reveal strength. Bush would do well to make appointments of similar stature in the rest of the Cabinet.
It is unlikely that the Bush Administration will have many high appointees doing a first tour in Washington, as Reagan did in 1980. Reagan's mandate overrode any inexperience with national government that some of his appointees suffered. Bush's 20 years of high-level government experience have exposed him to the best and brightest talent in Washington and around the country.
Many will find the way into his government. With the appointment of outgoing New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu as White House chief of staff, Bush cements another important power base--the increasing number of GOP governors. Not only is Sununu respected by his fellow governors, he is known as a principled conservative whose appointment will be well-received by the Republican right. He is bright, effective and tough.
He will need to be tough. Sununu is controversial in the Jewish community and, as a newcomer to Washington, many expect him to have a hard time with partisan Democrats in Congress. But from firsthand experience--I handled governors from the White House--John is a proved conciliator. (We frequently lacked support from governors because of reductions in many federal aid programs to the states.) I'm sure he will be able to build bridges not only to governors but also to Congress, where he will help to get Bush's agenda through.
The appointment on Thursday of Bush's campaign manager, Lee Atwater, as Republican National Committee chairman also sends a loud message to the Democrats. The campaign may be over, but the tough and savvy Atwater will use the Bush campaign organization--from its new base at the RNC--to keep pressure on the Democrats in legislative votes and to prepare for the 1990 midterm election and reelection effort four years away.
The key power base is the public. In the next 60 days, Bush should lay his agenda for handling the economy and deficit--not Congress' agenda or the National Economic Commission's agenda--before the public. That way, when he assumes the powers of the Oval Office in January, the new Congress will feel the heat.
The likely announcement of Richard G. Darman as Director of the Office of Management and Budget will be another plus. Darman not only knows the government and White House inside out, he is brilliant, articulate and understands Washington's power better than anyone since Henry A. Kissinger. He also will not be prone to the foot-in-mouth disease that afflicted David A. Stockman.
Where we failed after the 1984 reelection was in not using the months of December and January to establish a clear program and build public support before Congress convened in 1985. Bush's initial appointments show his loyalty to those loyal to him. It also shows he wants bright, independent people around him.
With 1984 as a model, there is no reason why Bush with his experience should not take command of the nation's agenda and be running full speed on Inauguration Day.