The Magazine

The Rewards of Boldness

Jan 27, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 19 • By FRED BARNES, FOR THE EDITORS
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PRESIDENT BUSH has a word for a policy he thinks isn't big enough to fight for. The word is "smallball." Bush prefers big ideas, the bolder the better. He loathes halfway measures. So instead of containment of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction, a policy that would satisfy most of the world and perhaps most Americans, Bush is pursuing regime change in Iraq and has fashioned a new doctrine of preemption. Rather than a modest economic growth package, he is seeking a supersized tax cut. And instead of accepting the conventional wisdom that Republicans must abjure conservative positions on race-related issues after the Trent Lott episode, the president renominated Charles Pickering as a U.S. appeals court judge and last week urged the Supreme Court to strike down racial preferences at the University of Michigan.

The bold approach has many advantages. For example, Bush doesn't wind up negotiating with himself--that is, jettisoning important items from a proposal on the assumption Congress won't go along. In reality, Congress often approves policies it doesn't like simply because the president insists. Another advantage is Bush improves his chances of getting what he wants and the country needs, not a half or a third of it. And once implemented, the full-blown policy or something close to it is more likely to produce what it's supposed to. Also, a president with big proposals looks presidential, not like a small-state governor. We could go on.

There is a downside. The political community in Washington, including many congressional Republicans, is unnerved by fearless policy-making. When a conservative president acts this way, the press piles on. Democrats put up a stink. Liberal interest groups go on the warpath. Though Bush isn't likely to be affected by all the noisemaking, others in his camp are. We've got a piece of advice for them: Don't panic. You'll only make things worse if you do. Hang tough and good things will happen.

The cycle is not a new one: The president announces a daring initiative, Washington recoils, and doom is predicted, but a steadfast president prevails and the weeks of anxiety and trembling are forgotten. President Reagan went through this, and proved that tenacity pays off. In 1981, his tax cut (three time bigger than Bush's in 2001) was called a budget-buster, an inflation-spiker, and a wild and reckless gamble. Much of Washington was rattled, even White House aides and GOP leaders in Congress. But Reagan didn't flinch, his tax bill passed, and by 1984 the economy was booming with lower inflation, falling interest rates, and plummeting joblessness. Had Reagan blinked and settled for less, he'd probably have been a one-term president.

Then there was the Pershing missile episode in 1983. The United States had promised to deploy the missiles in Europe to checkmate a new generation of Soviet missiles aimed at NATO countries. Despite Soviet objections and throngs of peace marchers, Reagan went ahead. The Soviets retaliated by storming out of arms control talks in Geneva.

Washington was in a tizzy, fearing the Cold War would turn hot. Reagan assured his queasy aides that no compromise was necessary and that the Soviets would return to the arms talks. Sure enough, they did, and soon were signing an arms reduction treaty that Reagan had been advised to abandon because the Soviets wouldn't consider it. Again steadfastness worked, and Reagan gained politically as well.

The analogy with Reagan is apt today. George W. Bush is far closer to Reagan in ideology, boldness, and resolve than he is to his own father. Bush has caught on to how the Washington cycle works, so he isn't the problem. The rest of Washington is. And the impulse to weaken, to retreat amid criticism, to soften, to grow anxious over going too far, remains strong. The Washington political class is essentially a standpat group.

Consider the reaction to Bush's new tax cut. Senate minority leader Tom Daschle labeled it "obscene." At least eight Senate Republicans found serious fault with it. More than one Republican said Bush might have to abandon his plan to eliminate the double taxation of stock dividends. The press is brimming with stories about average citizens who are tepid about the tax cut and complaints from economists who say it will drive up the deficit without boosting the economy. Polls are not particularly favorable.