GEORGE BUSH has now joined William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter as the fifth president seeking reelection to be toppled by the voters this century. The common theme of their presidencies is a lack of ideas and action equal to domestic challenges of the time.
History contradicts the conventional wisdom that presidents should steer a middle course between left and right. The voters reward activism, not centrism, in their presidents and punish inaction, not supposed extremism. Every innovative president this century has won reelection: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan. All were assailed by contemporaries for being too far left or right.
Mr. Bush's problems were governance, not politics; he blew this election not during his campaign, but during his term. The president failed to seize control of domestic policy. Instead he gambled that the economy would right itself by 1992 and that public concern over education, the deficit, and health care would fade.
The lesson for Bill Clinton is that he cannot become another Bush or Carter, lacking in ideas and mired in the Washington morass. The conventional-wisdom crowd is already telling Mr. Clinton to play politics as usual, but to do it better than Carter or Bush. That is the path to disaster for the nation and to oblivion for the new president.
In the first 100 days, Clinton must lead and not coddle the Congress. He need not be discouraged by a popular-vote mandate of less than 50 percent. With but 42 percent of the vote in 1912, President Wilson steered through Congress the Federal Reserve Act, tariff reduction, path-breaking antitrust legislation, and a graduated income tax.
Unified control of government will help a Democratic president, but if Clinton coddles the Congress he'll suffer the Carter malaise of compromise, delay, and indecision. If he leads Congress with big ideas and the courage of presidential conviction, members will be too timid to resist.
The new president should build consensus during the interregnum and then strike early in his term. Policy innovation has always begun before the midterm elections, when majority parties usually lose strength in Congress.
The times today are much like 1912. Our economic crisis is not as acute as the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s, but it is long-term, structural, and neglected. Clinton has the opportunity to effect reform as far-reaching as the Wilson legacy.
Clinton has highlighted crucial issues: health care, fiscal reform, higher education, and infrastructure investment. Other urgent matters have gained less attention in the political season. We're losing the battle for world competitiveness in the cradle, not the graduate school. The first 100 days must include a decisive and definitive commitment to pre-natal care, pre-school programs, child care, and day care.
Thirty-five years ago when Sputnik shattered American complacency, we fought back with teachers and scholarships, not bullets. By opening the receptive minds of our children we can defeat today's crisis on the front side of life, not on the back side with welfare and jail.
The tragedy in Los Angeles was not a loud enough wake-up call for our cities. Life has gone from bad to worse in Los Angeles and dozens of other communities. We sat through a 90-minute debate in St. Louis, without a single word about East St. Louis, one of the poorest, most deteriorating cities in America.
The Republican Party, echoed by Ross Perot, would have us think that the deficit they built in the last 12 years must paralyze America. Think again. We can rebuild America without bankrupting America.
Change will be real and lasting only if we expand our horizons beyond four years. American loans to Eastern Europe provide a 20-year span for planning and development. It will take equal foresight to achieve reconstruction at home.
Change requires new priorities. We can slice an additional $100 billion from the military over five years, save jobs by converting to civilian production, and still have a defense budget double that of any other land. We can raise more revenue, more fairly, with a truly progressive tax system.
Advisers with little ideas and small-caliber minds will tell Clinton he can't afford to think this big. After 12 years of cities abandoned, farms foreclosed, and children neglected, the nation can afford nothing less. Great leaders always find the means to do what they must.