By this time next week we will be awash in “First 100 Days” stories about President Bush’s early decisions, successes and failures.
Peggy Noonan jumped the gun, in fact, delivering a sharp assessment of the president’s first 90 days and thus setting a standard by which other pundits will be judged. Her Opinion Journal piece on April 20 deserves clipping and saving, for she makes an essential point: “Mr. Bush showed history that he will do what he said he’d do.” In other words, this president is not a liar, not a serial dissembler, not a winking rogue, not a study in the pathology of neediness.
Bill Clinton is gone, reduced to the political equivalent of Joe Lewis, the Las Vegas greeter. Mrs. Clinton is the Marley’s Ghost of Washington, D.C., reminding everyone of the eventual cost of moral posturing in the midst of material acquisitiveness and political cheap tricks. W is center stage, and in full command of an office restored to its essential, but not central place in American life.
Noonan was right to reference Michael Kelly’s underscoring of Mr. Bush’s decision not to greet the returning crew of Hainan captives as they reunited with families and friends as a central feature of the new president’s first few months in office. There are other clues to the future as well. The president used the occasion of the swearing-in of his White House staff on Jan. 22 to outline his vision of his method of governing. He told his top people that “[a]s we serve, we must always remember three things.” Those three injunctions to his staff set a tone that has carried through the first three-plus months and which can safely be projected into the balance of the President’s three-plus years in his first term.
W on the first order of conduct: “First, we must remember the high standards that come with high office. That begins with careful adherence to the rules. I expect every member of this administration to stay well within the boundaries that defines legal and ethical conduct. This means avoiding even the appearance of problems.”
Order No. 2 is related to order No. 1: “[W]e must remember that high standards of conduct involve not only obeying the law but showing civility. As we go about our work there is no excuse for arrogance, and never a reason for disrespect toward others.”
Having set the bar on conduct and attitude, President Bush also laid out an attitude of determination: “[F]inally, we must remember that we are here for a reason. You and I and the vice president share the same goals for our country and the same commitment to achieving them. We are here to make progress. We are not here to mark time. The next few weeks we’ll affirm the central policy goals of the administration, beginning this week with educational reform. Everyone will know where we stand. Everyone will know where we’re headed. Every morning I want you to remember these goals. Every evening I want you to review the progress we have made. I want it said of us, at the end of our service, that promises made were promises kept.”
In the first 100 days, Bush has kept to this course.
He has launched a review of Pentagon strategy under Secretary Rumsfeld and Andrew Marshall that will have more impact on the future of the country’s military in eight months than Clinton had in eight years.
Bush has doggedly pursued his vision of tax relief, and has moved the ball into the red zone. The political equivalent of a field goal is assured, and Bush is still pushing for the TD. He may get it, and he has already gotten a reputation for hardheaded but soft-spoken bargaining that will serve him well in the years ahead.
His education proposals are also near enactment, with four-fifths of the loaf already in hand. He has assembled a strong center-right coalition that includes a necessary loyal opposition on his right and left flanks.
The faith-based initiative is working through the obstacles that any serious proposal in this area would have to expect, without the meaningless “consensus by subtraction of conflict” that marked all Clinton-era “initiatives.” Recall Clinton’s “initiative” on race that brought together all shades of liberal opinion on affirmative action? Not the Bush way: If you want to get a genuine breakthrough, then you have to pull together strong minded and principled folks and let them have it. If John DiLiullo, Michael Horowitz and Marvin Olasky — the big three of the faith-in-action policy set, each with strong ties to a variety of crucial, influential constituencies in the world of church and synagogue — can reach agreement, then W will have a product worth fighting for.
All this in less than four months. Throw in a first foreign policy test and correct for the effects of the Clinton hangover on the chattering class, and George II is off to a tremendous start. Allegiance to the first principles of conduct laid out in the swearing-in speech will keep this administration on course and this president headed for a successful four years.
The danger, of course, is in a media elite still in need of a recovery program designed for Clinton-addicts. The Dowds and the Russerts, the Cokies and Sams, the cable spinners and the professional provocateurs of the left who, collectively, could not recognize character if it was tattooed on a candidate’s forehead — they are all still months away from detox and a return to professionalism in assessment.
Bush’s explicit embrace of two of Clinton’s actual policies — the rejection of Kyoto and the decision to maintain the same arsenic standard that Americans lived with through eight years of Bill and Al — revealed the depth to which Beltway commentators had sunk. In both cases, Bush adopted continuity with the actual policies of the Democratic administration, but rejected the rhetorical lies of his predecessors. The commentariat sent up an alarm which continues. Look for it in the other assessments of the first 100 days.
But pay it no mind. Bush has decided to govern from conviction, not from collusion with the media elite. It is a risky bet: “Watch what I do, not what I say” is a repudiation of the essence of Clintonism. It is working. It will, I think, continue to work.