Bush Can Take Heart From Reagan’s First Year

The President was bound to have a honeymoon. His enemies did

him the great service of calling him a moron, so when he showed that he was

not, America reacted with relief. His self-deprecating charm helped, too. But

those resources can go only so far, and once he spent them on his tax cut, his

poll numbers began their downward slide. Across the aisle in Democrat-land, the

former Vice President must be skipping rope and hitting the big bag.

That was the way it was 20 years ago, in the first half of

Ronald Reagan’s first term. You can look it up-the brains, the charm, the tax

cut, the tanking polls. Walter Mondale, warming up in his corner, prepared an

essay of deep thoughts for The New York Times Magazine. Note to Al Gore: Don’t make your essay equally

deep; Mr. Mondale’s was so snooze-making that when an unedited version

got dumped into The Times’ system by mistake, nobody caught

the error and it ran uncorrected.

The moral of this story? July of Year 1 of a four-year term

is a long way from anywhere; the only reason we’re talking about Mr. Bush’s

poll numbers now is that it’s summer, and the journalists who don’t want to

talk about Andrea Yates or Chandra Levy have nothing else to talk about. There

are, however, some interesting political straws in the wind.

What should be far more worrisome to President Bush than the

state of his polls is the state of Vice President Dick Cheney’s health. In the

lottery of Providence, Mr. Cheney drew a bad heart-he had his first heart

attack at age 37-and age has not strengthened it. A man lacking in ambition and

a sense of public service would be better able to do what was right for his

body: retire to his ranch to play small-stakes gin and shoot the odd migrating

bird. But care of the body is not the only priority, and perhaps not the highest

one. Epictetus called the body a corpse with a quart of blood (I learned that

from Tom Wolfe, not from Epictetus). Mr. Cheney has his heart-his moral, not

his physical, one-set on other things. He wants to work, and he knows that in a

democracy the work of politics requires a demeanor that is both relentless and

upbeat. So it is back to the harness and the circular track.

If the day comes, however, when ill health imperatively

demands a resignation, then President Bush will face an interesting situation.

The 25th Amendment allows the President to pick a new Vice President subject to

a majority vote of both houses of Congress. Under its provisions, Richard Nixon

picked Gerald Ford and Mr. Ford picked Nelson Rockefeller. President Bush does

not suffer their weaknesses, but he has a weakness of his own: a mandate that,

even without the Florida affair, is arguably negative, and a Senate that has

just passed into the hands of a sullen and vengeful opposition. Senate

Democrats would not cut him slack-and given their Constitutional power in this

contingency, why should they? President Bush would find himself maneuvering in

a narrow band of possibilities. We might get a Vice President Powell after all;

friends of Israel would probably welcome the promotion.

Turning to the House of

Representatives, what seemed impossible only eight short years ago now looks

almost inescapable. The Republican majority has weathered Bill Clinton’s

re-election, Newt Gingrich’s fall, Clinton’s survival and now the shortest

Presidential coattails in history. The G.O.P. just gained a seat in an election

in Virginia; if the trapdoor opens below California Representative Gary Condit,

they could pick up another in his Republican-leaning Modesto district.

What is the source of

this resilience? Certainly not the electric qualities of Speaker Dennis

Hastert. (N.B.: So long as a Vice Presidential vacancy is unfilled, Mr. Hastert

is a heartbeat away from charming Europeans and being charmed by President

Putin.) The true explanation is the map of the blue and red counties. They are

nearly equal, but when they are parceled out into House districts, Republican

red has the edge, and when the district lines are redrawn to reflect the 2000

census, that edge will widen a bit. Not that they have done much with their

power except hold it. But if the Democrats want highway overpasses in their

districts, they will have to wait.

In the statehouses, vulnerable governors look to their

unsteady thrones. One of the wobbliest holds Governor George Pataki-or so he must

think, to judge by his handling of the situation on Vieques. The Bush

administration behaved disappointingly enough, announcing that the Navy would

look elsewhere for bomb sites. But Mr. Pataki was far ahead of the

administration in courting the Puerto Rican political class (average Puerto

Ricans, many of them veterans, were much more divided in their sentiments,

though no one thought to consult them). The Governor could only have done more

if he had compressed some vertebrae to lose a few inches, in sympathy with the

pounds shed by the hunger-striking Reverend Al.

So long live the Chupacabras. Where then should the Navy

look for alternative bomb sites? I have an idea which the Governor might make a

part of his re-election campaign. Let the Atlantic fleet sail up and down the

Hudson, shelling Peekskill, Albany, and other upstate towns and cities. Most of

the inhabitants are black and Anglo, so Mr. Pataki will not risk losing any

Hispanic votes. The local economy will not suffer: After 12 years of Mario Cuomo

and seven of Pataki, upstate looks like it’s been shelled already; when the

sailors come ashore on leave, bars and Indian casinos will do well. If, once a

year, the Navy wants to take a turn around the Statue of Liberty and lob a few

bombs at Fifth Avenue during the Puerto Rican Day Parade, I’m sure the

anti-sexual-harassment units of the New York Police Department would appreciate

the help.

The Vieques decision was not the responsibility of ordinary

Puerto Ricans, either on the island or here. It was the decision of fuddled

Republicans, struggling through a Berlitz course in pandering. What a shame

that a successor of Teddy Roosevelt led the way. Bush Can Take Heart From Reagan’s First Year