DALLAS -- "President's Budget Pursues His Political Goals, Lets Congress Fret About Bottom Line," read one headline reporting on the state of the union as the president began his second term.
The subhead continued: "In ruling out tax increases and steep defense cuts to reduce the deficit, the president is forcing Congress to deal with the budget his way and on his terms."
That was the take of the National Journal of Feb. 9, 1985. The president then was Ronald Reagan, who was, of course, a good deal more moderate than George W. Bush. Reagan's political goal then was to preserve income tax cuts he had pushed through in his first term, continue to press for higher military spending, save Social Security, and begin reducing the massive annual deficits he had been running up during four years of increased military spending and reduced tax revenues.
President Bush's presidency has been modeled on Reagan's: Get tax cuts first, let deficits balloon, then demand spending cuts on domestic programs while emphasizing fearsome military threats and more and more military spending. There used to be those who said Bush was "Reagan Lite," but Bush's second-term State of the Union speech makes it clear Reagan was "Bush Lite." Among other things, Reagan displayed more of a sense of responsibility and urgency about deficit spending in February 1985 than Bush did last Wednesday night. Reagan also went along with an increase in payroll taxes -- the tax that funds Social Security -- while Bush specifically said he would oppose any change in payroll taxes to deal with future shortfalls.
In other words, by saying payroll taxes would continue to be paid on only the first $90,000 of annual income, Bush continued to serve what seems to be his first priority: making sure the rich get richer.
There were also significant differences in the defense priorities of the two conservative presidents, the moderate Reagan and the radical Bush. The 40th president, Reagan, argued that he was building up the American arsenal to force the Soviet Union to negotiate nuclear arms control agreements -- or go broke trying to match American spending. The 43rd president, Bush, is borrowing and spending the money to fight international terrorism, an urgent goal, and to cover up his own mistakes in invading Iraq.
Whatever his goals, Bush's timing was good, and the speech he gave to a joint session of Congress seemed to me the best one we have heard during his tenure, the best written and the best delivered. What gave last Wednesday night such power were the photos and video of lines of Iraqis walking and waiting to vote in a situation that was truly dangerous for many of them. It was, finally, the visual equivalent of the flower-throwing and kiss-blowing Vice President Cheney predicted when U.S. troops invaded the country.
That is the same Richard Cheney who was a congressman from Wyoming when President Reagan gave his 1985 speech. The young Cheney warned then that the danger of the Reagan deficits was that interest rates would rise as the deficits did, finally driving the economy into recession. Now Cheney says Reagan proved that deficits don't matter. It is not clear whether the vice president means deficits don't matter economically or just don't matter politically. The latter certainly seems to be true so far. The Republicans who came to power denouncing tax-and-spend liberals have evolved into borrow-and-spend radicals.
And the Democrats? On Social Security, Harry Reid, the new Senate minority leader, said the Democrats will back the president when he's right and fight him when he is wrong. Can't argue with that. The House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, covered Iraq, taking a stand that even Cheney and his preventive war gang would have no trouble endorsing: "We all know that the United States cannot stay in Iraq indefinitely and continue to be viewed as an occupying force. Neither should we slip out the back door, falsely declaring victory but leaving chaos."
Presidents tend to invite chaotic second terms -- unless they are sustained by the unpredictable. Their best people are tired or already back home, and both opponents and partisan backers sooner or later begin to focus on their own ambitions in the next turn of the electoral wheel.
Reagan carried 49 states in a re-election landslide -- that's political capital! -- but his second term was sinking into the swamp of trading arms for hostages in the Iran-Contra scandal when it was rescued by the historically sudden collapse of communism. The speed of that fall stunned even Reagan, who always believed it would happen one day, but a day further in the future.
That was then. I knew Ronald Reagan, and George Bush is no Ronald Reagan. But he is a determined fellow pursuing political goals of great moment while the opposition only sits and frets.
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