WASHINGTON — The fortunes of the soon-to-be Bush Administration may turn on the positive or negative thrust of its overwhelming characteristic: well-known Washington insiders repackaging familiar moderate conservative policies.
Sure, a few "kinder and gentler America" spangles have been sewn on Establishment Republicanism's standard gray flannel, but the drape of the new regime's haberdashery is right out of the Business Roundtable, Burning Tree Country Club and the National Republican Finance Committee. The risk is that it may be too "safe," too comfortably Washingtonian, to be successful.
Nuances aside, this is no coincidence. George Bush ran on experience, not innovation--on continuity, not change. Moreover, the 1988 election represents the first time since 1928 that a new President won the White House by campaigning as a Washington insider rather than by promising a new broom would sweep clean. After all, Bush has built his career on sending get-well cards and thank-you notes, not pink slips or eviction notices, to the inside-the-Beltway power structure. His Cabinet reflects that disposition.
What remains to be seen, however, is just how workable this will be. Prior examples are not encouraging, as the President-elect must know, because he, too, cited historical precedents during the campaign--at various points claiming kinship to Dwight D. Eisenhower, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman.
He's kidding himself--and also avoiding the more disturbing comparison.
Eisenhower, World War II U.S. Supreme Commander in Europe before he won the presidency, was America's most popular figure at the time of his 1952 election. Both parties had wanted to nominate "Ike." That gave his bipartisan centrism a larger-than-life political base. Bush, by contrast, won a nasty campaign with the lowest percentage of voter turnout since 1924.
One can understand Bush's interest in Theodore Roosevelt's record as an Eastern patrician who "roughed it" out West and then ran a reformist presidency. But the Bush-T.R. analogy stops at their common mix of cowboy lore and Ivy League slang. T.R. was a turn-of-the-century progressive, who fought to break up corporate trusts and impose an income tax on the upper brackets. No one expects a similar bias from George Herbert Walker Bush. As for Bush and Truman, any comparison beyond hardball campaign tactics defies cultural and political logic.
Closer parallels, unfortunately, lie in two presidencies Bush rarely mentions--those of Gerald R. Ford and Herbert Hoover--plus one he has cited, the election of Martin Van Buren in 1836. All three were insiders--but not ultimate success stories.
Let's start with the 1974-76 regime of Ford, a chief executive never elected but only appointed during the Watergate mess. His Administration was so notable for centrist but conformist GOP insiders that "Ford-like" became a kind of shorthand among populist conservatives for unimaginative GOP governance. During the summer and autumn of 1988, Bush was concerned enough about this reaction to minimize the role of some former Ford officials campaigning for him. After winning, though, he began choosing so many appointees with Ford-era service that one newspaper took two-thirds of a page to run their pictures. But no second Ford Administration can possibly meet the challenges of 1989-92.
The Hoover analogy, hopefully limited, simply involves Bush being the first winner since 1928 to follow a retiring President of his own party, an obvious rationale--then and now--for continuity in both policy and appointments. However, the most instructive overall parallel may be to Van Buren, whom Bush himself wryly thanked for his example as the last sitting vice president to win election as President.
In point of fact, Van Buren also represents a more profound similarity of circumstance. Like Bush, he took office after a popular two-term President of his own party, a situation history has proved problematic--first for Van Buren, then for William Howard Taft (succeeding T.R.) and then for Truman (following Franklin D. Roosevelt). All three won one election, but failed to win a second. Van Buren and Taft lost the general election, while Truman retired in 1952 after defeat in the New Hampshire primary. And the hapless Hoover was yet another third-termer unable to win reelection.
All this makes the underlying "Van Buren caution" simple. By the time a party gets three straight terms, it is trading on old dynamics, milking a weakening coalition and losing pizazz. What's more, economic problems sidestepped by the new President's popular predecessor may be getting ready to erupt.
Bluntly put, Presidents who have dismissed third-term problems by recycling the established wisdom and its practitioners have not triumphed in the history books. Even inside the Washington beltway, monuments to Van Buren, Taft and Hoover are few and far between.