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.
Social Security. Bush has an overwhelming advantage here. Rather than push for reform, Reagan agreed in 1983 to a Social Security bailout that raised the ceiling on income subject to payroll taxation and boosted the age for full benefits to 67. Bush championed reform last year, calling for private investment accounts funded by Social Security taxes. He found few vocal allies in Congress, yet he pushed ahead anyway and failed. Still, Bush left an important marker. The public is now convinced reform must come or Social Security will go belly up. But reform may not occur until the post-Bush years.
Government and spending. In theory, Reagan and Bush would seem to disagree on the size of government and the level of spending. Reagan is thought of as a small government conservative who gutted government and slashed spending. Bush is viewed as the opposite: a strong government conservative who tries to use government for conservative ends. But their actual records are pretty similar. Reagan cut spending only in his first year. Bush has held down nondiscretionary spending, and his budget deficits are a smaller percentage of GDP. Still, Reagan was more in line with traditional conservatism. He vetoed spending bills. Bush hasn't.
Education. Theory and reality clashed on education for Reagan. He sought to eliminate the Education Department but wound up letting education spending rise significantly. Bush regards the department as permanent and works through it to impose standards and testing on schools, overriding local control. Education spending has doubled. Bush may be less of a conservative than Reagan on education, but he's more realistic.
Courts. With his Supreme Court picks, Reagan moved the court to the right, but only slightly. His first nominee, Sandra Day O'Connor, succeeded Potter Stewart, a tick to the left. Antonin Scalia, in effect, replaced Warren Burger, an ideological lurch to the right. Under Bush, the switch from Chief Justice William Rehnquist to John Roberts was a wash. But chances are the replacement of O'Connor by Sam Alito will jerk the court in a decidedly conservative direction. So Bush has already reached the Reagan level, and may be surpassing it, in transforming the judiciary. And further nominations are possible.
Medicare. Bush is no conservative on this one, having created a costly prescription drug entitlement when he could have opted for a program aiding only needy seniors to buy prescription drugs. Reagan was better, but not much. He won enactment in 1983 of what was by far the biggest expansion of Medicare since its inception.
Immigration. Bush is no conservative on immigration, but neither was Reagan. Bush favors new ways to allow immigrants to enter America legally so they aren't slipping illegally across the border. He is accused of favoring amnesty for illegal aliens. Reagan was accused of this, too. He signed the Simpson-Mazzoli bill in 1986. It permitted illegals who entered the country before 1982 to gain citizenship.
Following the president's State of the Union address last week, conservatives found fault with his emphasis on government-financed energy programs and an American Competitiveness Initiative, plus his failure to promote tax reform. His speech was conservative only on foreign policy and health care.
And it was no balm to conservatives when Bush joked and backslapped with Bono, the U2 singer and advocate of debt forgiveness and AIDS relief in Africa, at the prayer breakfast. Bono spoke first. When Bush followed, he said he was "trying to figure out what to say" about Bono. "Careful," Bono said in a stage whisper. The president had nothing but praise for the singer.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard and author of Rebel-in-Chief (Crown Forum).