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News ANALYSIS : 'No-Pain' Style May Hurt Bush in Long Run

March 19, 1990|DAVID LAUTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — At the end of last month's U.S.-Latin American drug summit, a reporter asked President Bush how he could expect South American peasants to stop producing cocaine unless America agreed to pay higher prices for "alternative" products, such as coffee.

The President immediately acknowledged the point--"these economies are hurting," he conceded--but he insisted that his hands were tied. "I have a problem" in backing the Latins' pleas for higher coffee prices, he said. American consumers "don't necessarily want to pay" any more than they are.

It was a casual, offhand remark, but a revealing one. Although the President has cited the war on drugs as the issue that is likely to prove most crucial for him politically, he seems reluctant to embrace solutions that involve sacrifice by Americans.

The incident is not an isolated one. After 14 months in office, Bush, who has said he wants to become the "education President" and the "environmental President," is emerging instead as a "no-pain President," reluctant to ask voters to accept any short-term discomforts even if they are likely to result in long-term returns.

William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-oriented think tank, calls Bush "a status quo President" who has shunned any call for "a sense of a higher rationale" that might help produce bold, long-term results.

There is no question that Bush's low-key style is a change of pace. History books are brimming with calls for sacrifice by Bush's predecessors: During the depths of the 1981-82 recession, Ronald Reagan called on Americans to "stay the course." In the face of the Arab oil embargo, Jimmy Carter eventually raised gasoline prices to force Americans to conserve fuel and end the irksome gasoline lines. And, in the face of rapidly accelerating inflation, Richard M. Nixon broke with Republican tradition and imposed wage and price controls.

To be sure, Bush has not avoided all such gambles. All sides agree that the U.S. invasion of Panama that he ordered last December was risky by any standard. Had the assault been more difficult, it might have embroiled the United States in a messy Vietnam-style conflict that could have gone on for months.

Still, even in Panama, while the President asked American soldiers to make the ultimate sacrifice, he asked little of the nation as a whole. And the invasion aside, he generally has avoided taking stands that might anger any large groups of voters.

There are these examples:

--Although the nation is facing a mounting medical-care "crisis," with rapidly escalating costs that are threatening to crimp benefits for middle-class Americans, the President conspicuously has shunned the issue.

A senior Bush adviser says the President and his aides have "made an explicit decision to avoid health-care issues" for fear that they might generate too much controversy that might later cost the White House politically.

--The outbreak of peace and the emerging new democracies in Eastern Europe and Latin America have heightened the need for increased U.S. foreign aid, an item that traditionally has not been popular among American voters. Yet, despite warnings from some quarters that the United States will lose influence if it does not step up its foreign assistance, Bush has not sought any major increase in the foreign aid budget.

--Bush repeatedly has argued for reducing the federal budget deficit, but--like most of his Democratic opponents--he has been unwilling so far to propose any bold remedies. Indeed, critics say he has ruled out the most workable solution by adopting, and refusing to soften, his pledge for "no new taxes."

In defense, Bush's advisers argue that the President's no-pain posture is just what the doctor--or at least the electorate--ordered. After years of tumult and major policy changes, voters do not want bold action from the federal government, says Robert S. Teeter, his longtime pollster and adviser. Bush was elected to provide "continuity," Teeter says, not to overcome any "singular challenge."

Pete Teeley, another longstanding Bush adviser who once served as his press secretary, agrees, arguing that, in the current environment, proposing bold new strategies is unlikely to prove very profitable. "Anything that has to do with a little bit of pain to the American people, the Democratic leadership (in Congress) will take it and run against you--and he's outnumbered," Teeley asserts.

Moreover, Bush advisers argue, unlike the situation during the Reagan and Carter years, there currently is no overshadowing "crisis" that cries out for bold action.

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