It's Time To Do As Daddy Did

In between the 5 a.m. golf rounds, the afternoon speedboating and evening horseshoes competition, George W. Bush and his father should talk. The president couldn't have gone to Kennebunkport at a more opportune moment. He faces the prospect of a war against Iraq and a sagging economy, which are the very two problems his father dealt with during his presidency. It would make sense to compare notes. Except that the cardinal rule in the Bush White House seems to be, don't do what daddy did. A senior White House aide told NEWSWEEK recently that the president is "determined to avoid the mistakes of the father." In fact, what the president needs to do now is follow in his father's footsteps.

On Iraq, it's time to move beyond vague declarations about regime change--which is a wish, not a policy--and start building support for military action. That means rounding up allies and taking the issue to Congress and the public. Were the administration to try, it would even be able to get the United Nations to bless the intervention. A senior diplomat at the Security Council told me, "If the United States wanted us to authorize action against Iraq and pressed for it, and seriously outlined its case and postwar goals, no one in the Council would mount an opposition."

Bush Senior was masterful at this kind of diplomacy. Remember the magnitude of the gulf-war coalition--28 nations joined the fight in some way, including France, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, Argentina, Denmark and South Korea. The United Nations authorized it. The major allies paid for it. Russia broke with seven decades of obstructionism to give the mission a truly international mandate. All this is seen as window dressing by some in Washington, but it isn't. The United States derives much of its standing in the world because, unlike other dominant powers in history, it has been concerned about international norms and has had, in Thomas Jefferson's phrase, a "decent respect for the opinions of mankind."

In many ways, George W has a much easier task today. September 11 has alerted people to the dangers of madmen with weapons of mass destruction. And unlike the early 1990s, when the American government was drowning in red ink and James Baker had to pass around a tin cup to get allies to pay for the gulf war, the American government has money. Lots of it.

George W. Bush's second big challenge is to make sure things stay that way. The economic outlook is a lot gloomier than most recognized even a month ago, with the stock market sinking, consumer spending weakening and business investment still dormant.

The only thing the president can do is to give the country, and the markets, a sense that the government is following a sensible, stable course. "Right now the problem is psychological," says Peter G. Peterson, former secretary of Commerce, who runs the mammoth private equity firm The Blackstone Group. "The markets have lost any sense of optimism about the future. Businessmen are getting extraordinarily risk-averse. And these attitudes create self-fulfilling prophecies. The single best thing the president could do is to signal that he will get a handle on the federal budget."

The government is losing control of its finances. Over the next few years we will feel the costs of large tax cuts, large spending increases and large falloffs in government revenues because of slow growth. Democrats and Republicans have engaged in an orgy of spending--terror- and non-terror-related. In the past two years, the federal government has spent more money than it did in the first five years of the Clinton presidency. For his part, President Bush has not vetoed a single spending bill since he was elected. (The administration is not helping its image by releasing forecasts that would make Arthur Andersen blush.)

George Bush Senior handled his fiscal problem with extraordinary responsibility. Facing crippling deficits, he brokered a budget agreement with congressional Democrats; in exchange for modest tax increases, he got them to agree to spending cuts. Robert Reischauer, the former head of the Congressional Budget Office, estimates that budget deal actually reduced the deficit over five years by more than Bill Clinton did over a similar period. It laid the groundwork for the prosperity of the 1990s.

Some on W's team might agree that 41's policies were right. But he lost his bid for re-election, they point out. There is a logical fallacy here. George H. W. Bush lost the 1992 election not because he was a coalition-builder abroad nor even because he raised taxes. (After all, Ronald Reagan raised taxes several times.) It's because he was a terrible politician. The wonder is that he got elected president in the first place. (Actually it's not a wonder; Bush in effect won Reagan's third term.) The president should stop worrying about politics and do the right thing. On the two challenges he faces, his father knows best.