The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, January 1989 Vol. XXVI Number 6

George Bush will be our next president. What does it all mean? 

Or, more precisely, what messages did the election give to the American people onto the president -elect himself? 

The election campaign was a “dirty” campaign. The real issues were ignored while Willie Horton and the Pledge of Allegiance dominated the headlines. And undertones of racism were apparent in the consistent attempt to identify the Democrats with Jesse Jackson and the blacks.  

Bush did not win the election because of his personal charisma or extraordinary skills. Nor did he win because of the peculiar ineptness of Michael Dukakis. His victory was due to the public belief that the Reagan years meant prosperity and that he was the chosen successor to carry on the Reagan formula for economic success. The mantle of the ever-popular Reagan was his greatest asset. It is highly doubtful that any Democrat would have been successful in persuading American voters to “change horses in midstream.” 

But Bush was assisted by other factors than Reagan. His campaign managers, especially Jim Baker, were brilliant. They recognized that the issues of crime and patriotism were more important to the American public than the real issues of deficits and trade and imbalance and programmed their candidate to play them for all that they were worth. And the never articulated identification of the Republicans is the party of the whites was no mean boost. 

Bush confronts many serious problems as he assumed the presidency. Not only does he face the fact that the growing national deficit threatens the economy with imminent ruin. He also has to deal with the domestic issues of drugs, environmental pollution, healthcare and educational subsidies – as well as the foreign policy issues of disarmament, Central America and the Middle East. During the campaign he never provided any real indication of how he would deal with these problems.  

His diverse constituency presents another headache. He has to maintain a balancing act among the diverse groups that supported him. Satisfying economic conservatives, social conservatives, anti-communist and libertarians simultaneously is no mean feat. 

So what is the message of the election? 

The election confirmed the fact that the presidency has become Republican preserve. It has become increasingly more difficult for Democrats to win the presidential race. From Roosevelt to Johnson the White House was chiefly Democratic territory. But Nixon reversed that political tradition. Now the Democrats are the underdogs who always have to try harder. The South, which was once a secure base of the Democratic party, has now become a Republican preserve. In fact the Democrats no longer have any secure presidential base except in the dispersed black (sic) population. America is now condemned to divided government-a Republican president with a Democratic Congress. 

The election revealed that the country is not ready for an ethnic president. The Republicans, true to their Anglo-Saxon tradition, pick two impeccable WASPs to represent their position. In the South and in the West these American credentials are still significant. 

The election proved that the Democrats are “liberals” even when they do not want to be. No matter how hard Dukakis tried to avoid the label, he finally had to own up to it – even though it was humiliatingly too late. The message to the Democrats, at least in the presidential race, is to own up to their liberal traditions and to make them attractive. Trying to pose as conservatives with better management skills does not work, even if it is true. 

The election manifested the changing nature of the presidency. As a media phenomenon, the president has to be designed and trained. He is less and less an autonomous leader with a mind of his own. He has become the invention of campaign advisers and media consultants who write his speeches, create his slogans and determine what opportunistic twist his ideology should take. Bush is the prisoner of his staff and will continue to be after his inauguration. Undoubtedly, Jim Baker will share the presidency. 

The election has some very special and important messages for Bush. 

It reminds him that most of his constituency-including his yuppie supporters-voted for his economic program and not for the social program of the religious right. The power of the fundamentalist crazies was not as great in this election as it was eight years ago. 

It tells him that the choice of Quayle hurt him. His victory would have been more overwhelming had he not committed the blunder of choosing the Indiana lightweight. The best service he can perform for the American public is to keep Quayle either unemployed or busy with trivial ceremony duties – and, above all, refuse to die. 

It warns him that his victory was hardly a mandate. Congress remains solidly Democratic. Both domestic and foreign policies, if they are to work and not to be trapped in stalemate, need to be bi-partisan. If his old moderate and conciliatory skills return – and his recent staff and cabinet appointments seem to indicate that – important bridges of cooperation can be built. 

Above all, the election reminds him that peace is very popular. Gorbachev rescued Reagan from the disaster of Irangate by handing him the gift of detente and disarmament. Republican popularity is now tied to an appropriate response to Gorbachev and the peace initiative. Only the hard-core anti-communists still want to hear Cold War rhetoric. 

In fact, Bush, like Reagan, enjoys the good fortune of mazzel. He has been elected to the presidency at a time when the old big power confrontations are beginning to disappear and when peace is breaking out all over. If he takes advantage of his good luck, he may end up presiding over one of the most significant presidencies of this century. He will never thank Gorbachev for his mazzel. But he ought to.