The Magazine

Bush the Bold?

Our new chief executive could be more than a manager

Feb 12, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 21 • By ERIC COHEN
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At the luncheon after George W. Bush's inauguration, senator Mitch McConnell toasted the new president as an American "Joshua," whose ability to bring people together would lead the nation to the promised land. It was a religion-filled day -- with President Bush appealing to saints and angels in the cause of renewing "the spirit of citizenship." For a nation that has spent the last half century erecting barriers to religion in public life and ignoring the religious grounding of its own history, the first days of the Bush presidency have marked a striking change.

But that change should not be overestimated. For all the media revulsion that has greeted Bill Clinton's narcissistic departure from Washington, this is still a country that has so minimally defined the presidency that it gave the exiting Clinton a 65 percent job approval rating, the highest in modern history for an outgoing president. And if the passions and divisions of the Ashcroft hearing are any indication, then America may indeed need a political Joshua to bring it together on the most important moral issues. For despite Bush's unifying call, echoing Jefferson, that "every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle," many differences are just that -- deep, fundamental, differences of principle.

On no issue is this more clear than abortion -- where the absolutist agenda of choice over responsibility makes its most resolute claim. It is an issue that is important not only because of the moral gravity of the deed itself, but because it is intertwined with the moral challenges of the next generation -- human cloning, genetic engineering, and in general the extent to which we are willing to manipulate human life in the name of happiness, compassion, choice, and progress.

Bush's commitment to civility, the overarching theme of his first weeks in office, is a welcome change from Clinton's guerrilla-warfare style of politics. But civility is not always the highest political virtue, especially if it degenerates into appeasement in the name of poll-tested realism, and retreat in the name of bipartisanship. If by civility it turns out that Bush means doing obvious, easy things that no one can cavil at, he will not achieve the restoration of American character that he claims is his political mission.

So what can George W. Bush do? Is there a New Republican agenda to be forged and a new governing majority to be created? Or are we in for a period of cultural stalemate?

So far, there is cause for both optimism and concern. As political managers, Bush and Cheney and their team have performed admirably. Clearly, Bush is not simply an economic and political pragmatist (like his father) or an anti-government zealot (like the Gingrich revolutionaries). He seems to be grasping for a practical philosophy of conservative governance, one rooted in his own faith and broadly appealing to the "quiet of American conscience."

But the Bush team's commitment to and capacity for political entrepreneurship is not yet clear. The promise to "unify, not divide" cannot obscure the fact the fact on the most important, most divisive, moral-cultural issues, Bush has not persuaded key constituencies to think and vote and govern themselves differently. He has not yet tried to redraw the political map.

Bush's "faith-based" initiative is a much needed first step. But if it is pitched narrowly to the most suffering, most needy, most disadvantaged Americans -- without contributing to a moral awakening among the nonjudgmental, post-shame, pro-choice elites -- it will be a real but limited blessing, and perhaps in the end an unsustainable one.

To be fair, the new presidency has just begun. And perhaps Bush's strategy of blurring the middle during the campaign, avoiding divisive social issues, and quietly trying to bring together Republican pragmatists and conservative ideologues, is political genius. Perhaps it is the basis for a new Republican majority, which Bush can expand by refocusing the conservative agenda on traditionally "liberal" issues, like fighting poverty, improving public schools, and expanding health care coverage. And perhaps Bush himself is wisely taking the long view -- using his first 100 days in office to build comity and consensus, so that he can address the most divisive, most important moral issues from a position of strength.

But this strategy, if it is a strategy, has limitations: First, bringing together these old Republican constituencies does not address the problem that Republican pragmatists and Republican ideologues still seem to add up to no more than 48 percent of the electorate, the size of Bush's vote.