PRESIDENT BUSH TOLD AN OLD joke at the National Prayer Breakfast last week. A preacher delivers a powerful sermon, prompting a parishioner to leap to his feet and yell, "Use me, Lord, use me!" The same thing happens the next week, so the preacher buttonholes the man after church and says he'd like to use him to paint the pews. Another week passes and during the preacher's sermon, the man stands up again. "Use me, Lord, use me!" he says, "but only in an advisory capacity."
The president didn't liken the story to his second term, but in a loose way it applies. The administration's zeal, its daring, and passion for new world-changing initiatives seems to have faded with reelection. This often happens. In the sixth year of a presidency, the well runs dry. The flow of big ideas and bold proposals stops. It did for President Reagan. Tax reform was enacted in his sixth year, 1986, but it had been set in motion two years earlier. It did for President Clinton, who was tangled up in impeachment. Now it has for President Bush. The fresh parts of his agenda are underwhelming.
The absence of a powerful new agenda has a silver lining. It gives the president a breathing spell to finish the major undertakings from his first term: the war on terrorism, Iraq, Iran, the promotion of democracy. Taking on those projects in the first place has made Bush a consequential president, a leader and not a caretaker. Bringing them to success would make him at least a near-great president. And there are two leftover domestic issues as well: immigration and making his tax cuts permanent.
Bush's new proposals on energy, education, and health care, small as they are, have reignited an argument over whether he's truly a conservative and how he measures up to Reagan, the conservative favorite. I contrasted them broadly in the excerpt from my book, Rebel-in-Chief, in the January 23 issue of The Weekly Standard. Now let's compare Bush as he begins his sixth year and Reagan at the same period in his presidency, using ten current, specific issues.
Foreign policy. Both Reagan and Bush should be called idealists, not realists. Both jacked up military spending. Both used hawkish and strong pro-democracy rhetoric. Both took on worldwide missions. Reagan aimed to bring down Soviet communism and succeeded. Bush is fighting a war against Islamic terrorists (and to spread democracy) and the verdict is still out. Bush is considerably bolder in deploying the military, invading Afghanistan and Iraq. Reagan captured Grenada, but his most aggressive policy was to support indigenous wars of liberation in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and Angola. In terms of conservative policies, Bush is roughly Reagan's equal on foreign policy.
Israel. Reagan was Israel's best friend in the White House until Bush came along. Reagan famously stopped Israel from crushing the PLO under Yasser Arafat in 1982 and hastily withdrew Marines from Lebanon. Bush famously ostracized Arafat, allowed Israel to build a security fence and assassinate Palestinian terrorist leaders without American protest, and insisted on Palestinian democracy. The Reagan administration criticized Israel's bombing of Iraq's nuclear facility at Osirak, though Reagan himself probably didn't share that sentiment. Bush promised last week to defend Israel militarily against Iran. On balance, as pro-Israel as Reagan was, Bush's support is even greater.
Iran. A Bush administration official noted recently that the biggest disasters in American foreign policy in the past three decades involved Iran: the hostage crisis, arms for hostages, and the nuclear arms threat. Reagan ended the hostage affair merely by taking office in 1981. The Iranians feared what he might do if they didn't release the hostages. In 1987, Reagan's aides cajoled him into saying he'd sent Iran arms in exchange for releasing hostages in Lebanon. Today, Bush has a bigger problem as Iran moves close to producing a nuclear weapon. He has worked with European allies for a diplomatic solution and believes Iran is so fearful of sanctions and isolation that this non-military tack may work. We'll see.
Taxes. Like Reagan, Bush is a serious tax cutter. Reagan's tax cut in 1981 was bigger than Bush's twenty years later, but it dealt with a far worse economy. And it worked, reviving the economy, just as Bush's has. With tax reform in 1986, Reagan trimmed the top rate on personal income to 28 percent, a magnificent achievement. He also raised taxes several times--Bush hasn't--but he gets credit for introducing a new economic theory, supply side, still a potent force in economic thinking. Bush hasn't matched Reagan overall on taxes, but there's no doubt he's a conservative and a supply-sider.