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Jewish World Review Jan. 17, 2001 / 22 Teves, 5761

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Boomers but not twins

As different as Martha's Vineyard and Crawford, Texas --
NO TWO SUCCESSIVE presidents have been as different in temperament and character since John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Born in the same year, like Adams and Jackson, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have a lot in common: They graduated from college in the same year, first ran for office and lost in the same decade, served as governors of their home states, and were both elected president. But we can be confident they wouldn't have liked each other in school (they nearly overlapped at Yale) and don't now.

The difference can be stated in a phrase: Clinton responds, Bush manages; Clinton reacts, Bush plans. It is said often that Bill Clinton is the most talented politician of his generation, perhaps in all of American history. But his talent is not for setting agendas but for responding to events, to agendas of others, to public opinion. The "new covenant" theme of his 1992 campaign was an intelligent response to voters' qualms about both parties, but his biggest gains in polls came from someone else's unpredictable act–Ross Perot's withdrawal the day of his speech at the Democratic convention.

In 1994, Clinton got in trouble when he had to subordinate his own judgment to the less shrewd judgment of his wife, whom he owed for standing by him despite charges of philandering. In 1995 and 1996, he responded adroitly to the new Republican Congress, playing to the public's preference for consensus over controversy and embracing welfare reform. He now extols that as one of his greatest achievements though, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, if it had come 14 weeks after the election instead of 14 weeks before, he would have vetoed it: a response once again. So was his embrace of a balanced budget (which almost certainly would never have happened had Clinton gotten his way and kept Congress Democratic) and of free trade (he got George Bush's North American Free Trade Agreement ratified in 1993 but did little more for trade till big business put on the pressure for China in 2000).

The Gore veto. On foreign policy, too, Clinton responded to pressure. He intervened in Bosnia only when Richard Holbrooke informed him that he had already committed to helping the NATO allies leave and so would have to go in anyway. His Haiti and Cuba policies have zigged and zagged, with the only constant being a desire to keep out refugees like the Marielitos, who, held in Arkansas, were one reason he lost the 1980 gubernatorial election. Presented in early 1999 with an opportunity for a really big achievement, Social Security and Medicare reform, he instead let it be vetoed by Al Gore, for whom Clinton was determined to serve as campaign manager in chief. The motif of Clinton's whole life has been, in cleaned-up language: Get pleasure tonight, explain tomorrow. He is good at both, but he is always responding, to blandishments or attacks.

Bush is famously less articulate than Clinton, and so the press and the cultural elite conclude that he is far less smart: The chattering class admires people who chatter well. But Bush has a different sort of intelligence, which is reflected in his capacity to set a long-term strategy and to stick with it until he reaches his goal. Look at his campaign. He carefully established a set of issue positions–on education, taxes, Social Security, Medicare, defense–that served him well in the primaries and in the general election and now seems capable of being enacted with bipartisan majorities in Congress.

Nor are these just responses to signals in the political marketplace. Take Social Security reform. It has long been conventional wisdom that this is a losing issue for Republicans, that anything other than a pledge to preserve the system as it is, forever and ever, is political death. Yet Bush decided to stake his candidacy on a pledge to transform Social Security with individual investment accounts–a proposal unfamiliar to most voters, which would have to be explained and defended. Which, in his not terribly articulate and West-Texas-accented way, he did. Bush has been smart enough to establish and carry out a strategy that enabled him to beat, by a narrow margin, the incumbent vice president in a time of peace and prosperity. It's not clear that anyone else or any other strategy could have done it.

Bush's intelligence is more directed, more disciplined, more dedicated to the business of governance than Clinton's. Clinton produced results that no one would have predicted, like welfare reform, because he responded to others; Bush may produce results that few would have predicted, like Social Security reform, because he set out to do so. Bush may be less entertaining and less dazzling than Clinton, but he is likely to produce a more orderly, purposive presidency.

There are a few things these two baby boomers have in common. Both have great charm in the room–a wonderful asset for presidents. Both seem to be unflappable–a very reassuring characteristic. And both, based on their careers so far, have large dollops of the quality that Napoleon said he sought most in his generals–luck. But otherwise, they're as different as their favorite vacation places, Martha's Vineyard and Crawford, Texas.

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of the biennialAlmanac of American Politics. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


01/02/01: President-elect Bush aims to make friends, one at a time
12/18/00: Red Queen rules
12/04/00: Lies and statistics
11/28/00: Thou shalt not steal
11/14/00: How Bush can lead
10/31/00: Puzzled by the state poll results? So are the candidates
10/18/00: When talk is cheap
10/03/00: The death of Big Media
09/09/00: A fair question
08/28/00: Making labor's day
07/11/00: The new Mexico: The 20-year history behind an overnight change
07/06/00: A textbook campaign: Bush makes hay before the convention lights shine
06/23/00: Beat the press
06/06/00: Reining in regulators: Will the Supreme Court clip Washington's wings?
05/25/00: In plain English: Bilingual education flunks out of schools in California
04/28/00: Gore in the balance: His book reveals a fanatical approach to the environment
04/04/00: President-elect Putin offers a basis for hopes–and for fears
03/14/00: Over the long, long haul, the issues may yet favor the Republicans
03/02/00: Will unions rule? Indispensable to Gore, labor may be the campaign's secret winner
02/15/00: A reformers' party
01/03/00: The voters rule: In Manchester, Mexico, and Moscow, an imperfect system works
01/19/00: The era of Big Promises
12/08/99: Welcome to the world of 'good enough'
11/2/99: Just saying no
11/12/99: Money talks, as it should
10/28/99: Mexico votes – for real
10/03/99: Going against type
09/28/99: The unions go public
08/31/99: China's strait flush
08/25/99: The first two contests
08/03/99: Paddling upstream
07/08/99: Taking Hillary seriously
06/22/99: Trying the lawyers
06/07/99: Facts on the ground

©2000, Michael Barone