GOP governs, Dems deny

Although we talk about the ability of President Bush’s use of the “bully pulpit” to set the nation’s political agenda, most presidents find themselves fighting for their survival or legacy on battlegrounds chosen by others. Thus, much of Bush’s first-term agenda was shaped not by the president and his advisers but by Osama bin Laden and his lunatic friends.

Most Americans believe Bush responded well to Sept. 11 and have faith in his ability to fight the war on terrorism, and they reelected him largely on the basis of that faith. If he manages to stabilize Iraq and keep the terrorists on the defensive for the next four years, historians will look back on his eight years in the White House as a time when the United States rose successfully to confront a new and dangerous enemy.

Although we talk about the ability of President Bush’s use of the “bully pulpit” to set the nation’s political agenda, most presidents find themselves fighting for their survival or legacy on battlegrounds chosen by others. Thus, much of Bush’s first-term agenda was shaped not by the president and his advisers but by Osama bin Laden and his lunatic friends.

Most Americans believe Bush responded well to Sept. 11 and have faith in his ability to fight the war on terrorism, and they reelected him largely on the basis of that faith. If he manages to stabilize Iraq and keep the terrorists on the defensive for the next four years, historians will look back on his eight years in the White House as a time when the United States rose successfully to confront a new and dangerous enemy.

Not a bad legacy, but Bush clearly wants to be remembered for far more. Men seek the White House because they want to be president, but a few run not simply because they crave the power that goes with the office or even because they believe themselves more qualified than their opponents. Others run because they want to make a real difference.

The first Bush to serve in the White House was a decent man and a fairly good president who dealt competently with the problems that crossed his desk. It was as if George H.W. Bush felt that if he did that he would be doing what the people should expect of a president. One pundit described his as an “inbox” presidency.

The most successful presidents, however, are never satisfied just dealing with the problems of the moment. They want to do more, and it is in this that the son differs from his father and so many of their predecessors.

Anyone who has listened to President George W. Bush since he was reelected has to know that he will not be content simply serving for the next four years with an eye to his popularity. The agenda upon which he hoped to build during his first term may have been delayed by the Islamic terrorists who have occupied so much of his time, but it has not been abandoned.

That the centerpiece of that agenda is Social Security reform says a lot about Bush and his willingness to both think big thoughts and take enormous risks. The presidents we remember are those who have been willing to do both and had the backbone to choose battles that they could have avoided or delayed because they have believed they must be fought.

The Social Security “crisis” of which Bush talks is real, but he could take the advice of politicians who, like Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.), wonder why we should deal with it today since the system won’t actually crash while most present politicians aren’t in office. The answer is, of course, that responsible leaders don’t lay real problems off on others or on their children and grandchildren; real leaders either lead or lose.

Thirty years ago, political scientist Samuel Lubbell observed that, in this country, policy debates between the parties have never proved all that important.

The real debates, he suggested, take place within the majority party, which afterward has the responsibility of actually solving the problems the public wants to be addressed. Minority parties only play a role when the majority ignores major problems and the public is forced to look elsewhere for leadership.

Perhaps this explains why, although poll after poll shows a public awareness of the approaching crisis in Social Security and a willingness to look at reasonable reform, the whole debate about what can be done is taking place within the Republican Party. Finding viable solutions to difficult problems is often messy, but one gets the sense that at least the president and others within the GOP are trying.

The leaders of the Democratic Party, on the other hand, seem content simply to argue that there is no problem — that the president and the GOP are engaged in some sort of conspiracy to rob current and future retirees of their due — and they are preparing to fight any reform whatsoever.

In the real world, this is called denial, and it may be the strongest evidence yet that the party that controls the White House and both houses of Congress has, in fact, become the real majority party in this country.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm ( www.carmengrouplobbying.com).