Nothing like father

Posted: Apr 22, 2003 12:00 AM

I knew George W. Bush was different from his dad almost from the first moment I saw him. It was in the summer of 1999 at the Iowa straw poll, a carnivallike event that unofficially kicks off the Republican primary season. For some reason, a cavalcade of Harley-Davidson riders had come to the event, standing around their bikes in the parking lot.

They were leather- and denim-wearing, tattooed and grimy tough guys. It would have been hard to imagine Bush's dad, the Kennebunkport patrician, getting anywhere near this bunch with their black helmets, beards and beer guts. But George W. couldn't get enough of them, glad-handing, squeezing and even hugging them.

The cliche of the political season is that President Bush risks suffering the same fate as his father in an electoral tragedy that could be authored by Sophocles. The parallels are irresistible -- both won a war against Saddam Hussein and were regarded as successful foreign-policy presidents, both suffered from recessions during their terms that lingered on in slow, "jobless" recoveries, both have the last name Bush.

The economy sank the father. Will it do the same to the son? Democrats hope so, and will try to use some version of Ronald Reagan's riff running against Jimmy Carter: "A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his." But George W., as those bikers could tell you, is assuredly not his father -- besides which, more than a slow economy undid Bush the Elder.

The first George Bush was so remote as a politician that his handlers gave him a cue card on a visit to New Hampshire to remind him to seem compassionate. Bush, in a famous instance of cluelessness, read it aloud: "Message: I care." George W., born and bred in West Texas, has nothing of the patrician about him, and has absorbed some of the touchy-feely ethos of our age. No one has to tell him to care.

Bush the Elder's remoteness wasn't just a matter of style. He essentially quit on domestic policy. In 1990, his Chief of Staff John Sununu said that the White House didn't care if Congress disbanded, since the administration didn't have anything for it to do. W., in contrast, is pushing tax cuts, Medicare reform, welfare reform and much else, in what amounts -- right or wrong -- to a vigorous domestic push.

The first Bush's one big imprint on domestic politics was breaking the promise he'd gotten elected on -- not to raise taxes. This shattered his credibility. His son has proved himself a man of his word, whether delivering on his big tax cut immediately after his election, or invading Iraq after he said he would invade Iraq.

The broken tax-cut pledge created what is the biggest political difference between father and son. The first Bush lost the support of his base, meaning he had to spend much of his re-election scrambling, futilely, to recover it. W. is a rock star to conservatives. He cannot just depend on their energy next year, but will have more flexibility to make feints to the center, if necessary.

Finally, Bush's dad was known for his foreign-policy expertise at a time when the Cold War had just ended and the country was ready to take a break from foreign affairs. Sept. 11 has made national security a domestic issue. There is little danger that Bush's aggressiveness overseas will be seen as detachment from the country's core needs, since it is meant to address one of those needs: to make us safer.

None of this is to say that the soft economy won't hurt Bush. But expecting him to follow the doomed re-election path of his father is folly, given his entirely different political personality and program. At the beginning of W.'s national rise, one of my colleagues gave voice to conservative suspicions of him by saying, "Genes must account for something." Perhaps less than we think.