Look fast: George Bush is completing one of his periodic transformations from wimp to titan. After being canonized as a political Goliath for his come-from-behind thrashing of Michael S. Dukakis, Bush spent his electoral honeymoon on the couch, listening to the Washington Establishment condemn him for caution, indecisiveness and apparently terminal blandness. Now his notices are shifting again. Bush's proposal to cut troops in Europe received a thundering response abroad; his plan for controlling air pollution was warmly welcomed at home. Bush's job-approval and personal ratings have soared.
Perhaps most important, Bush is confounding Democratic efforts to develop a line of attack against him. Though it remains early in the Administration, the Democrats' inability to draw a bead on Bush has implications for the 1990 midterm elections and for the 1992 presidential race. It often seems that political campaigns pivot on a few weeks of misleading TV commercials and orchestrated sound bites, but the themes that dominate national elections usually simmer for years. Right now, for the Democrats, nothing is cooking.
By this point in Jimmy Carter's presidency, the perception of the former Georgia governor as incompetent at home and overmatched abroad--central pillars of the GOP case against him in 1980--was percolating through political circles. By this point in Ronald Reagan's first term, Democrats were blasting him for "unfairness" in his economic priorities, belligerence toward the Soviet Union and indifference toward the environment--issues Walter F. Mondale tried against him in 1984.
In sharp contrast, the opposition brief against Bush hasn't taken form. If Reagan's first year was a war, Bush's is a snore. "Nobody is making a coherent case against George Bush right now," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.
That's not only because the Democrats have been too busy dressing their own wounded on Capitol Hill to take aim at the White House. Bush hasn't given the Democrats much to shoot at. He's pushed a centrist agenda that doesn't inspire outrage. At the same time, when pressed enough, he's capably rejoined charges that his agenda is too modest: After Democrats accused Bush of ignoring Soviet arms-reduction initiatives, he unveiled his surprisingly bold proposal for troop cuts in Europe--and changed the issue's political dynamic overnight.
Bush has been much less prone than Reagan to box himself into constricting ideological corners. That flexibility has allowed him to commandeer a strong middle-ground position on several issues that help Democrats, particularly arms control and the environment. He cut his losses on aid to the Nicaraguan Contras. The congressional Democrats haven't been able to get far enough away from Bush to effectively fire on him; even in the continuing legislative fight over the minimum wage, the difference between the President and Congress is only 30 cents. Except for Bush's uncertain handling of the Alaskan oil spill and his opposition to abortion, liberal interest groups have had nothing to rally against.
"Bush has not broken off big chunks of the population and declared them the enemy or allowed them to declare themselves the enemy," said one White House aide. "He is not going about this in a polarizing way. The reason the lines of attack aren't there isn't because of some neo-Teflon quality of Bush; it's that there is no ideological issues base from which to oppose him."
As the new House leadership settles into place, the Democrats will do a better job of building that base. But the party faces a larger problem in drawing a line against Bush: catching the public's attention. Before the 1988 campaign, many Democratic strategists, and even some Republicans, predicted the nation was approaching a cyclical turning point--when its focus would shift from private concerns that defined the 1980s to the public initiatives that animated the 1960s. But those hopes have been disappointed: Even in Washington, there's little sense now that government is the driving force in American life. Next to the tumultuous events shaking the communist world, Washington's paralyzing obsession with personality and peccadillo seems trivial--a food fight on history's fringe. The public has recoiled accordingly.
That disinterest subtly strengthens Bush, whose public agenda is far more limited than congressional Democrats'. Democrats continue to take heart from polls that show voters want to confront such social problems as drugs and homelessness. But those attitudes remain diffuse and not necessarily aimed at government action. After absorbing eight years of Reagan's homilies against big government, Americans don't expect much from Washington; in one recent survey only 25% of the voters said they expected any significant help. That atrophied view of government responsibility has lowered the standard Bush must meet.