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.