President George Bush and former President George Bush have something in common. They can't protect a lead.
Bush's first year in office divides itself up into quarters. In the first quarter, he had a good offense, cutting the deals that would give him his tax cut and laying the basis for his historic education reforms. The Democrats put some points on the board with their criticism of his environmental obtuseness, but his ratings looked good.
In the second quarter, even though he got to sign his tax cut, it was clear that Bush had no offense going. Once he had slashed income taxes and untracked his education reform, he had no agenda. Democrats pushed for a patients' bill of rights, stem cell research, the Kyoto global warming treaty, coverage for prescription drugs for the elderly, and campaign finance reform. Bush played defense throughout. Elected to cut the size of government, he had no follow-through once he had achieved his goal.
In the third quarter, disaster struck America with the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings. Bush etched a place for himself in history with his stand-up, take-charge style as he calmly piloted the nation to a victory in Afghanistan and enough security to frustrate further terrorist attacks. Refraining from premature reaction to the events of 9-11, the president achieved a global consensus and then closed in on the Taliban with a gradual strangulation, all without much loss of American life. His ratings, justifiably, soared.
But, in the fourth quarter of his first year, Bush made clear that he is no better than his father was at holding a lead. He simply doesn't have an act two. He could invade Iraq and put Saddam Hussein out of business. He could rally the nation to eradicate the drug producers of South America and smash the narco-terrorists who defend them. He could get serious about curbing the domestic demand for drugs by implementing drug testing in schools and in the workplace. He could reform our immigration system to keep out terrorists by cutting back on student visas, finding those who are here illegally, and vastly expanding our capacity for deportation.
He could establish a "earned citizenship" program for Mexican Americans here illegally through which they could become first legal and then citizens if they submit to drug tests, earn money, pay their taxes, and go for a certain period of time without being arrested.
He could take the lead in Medicare and Social Security reform. He could initiate a values agenda to encourage community service and a patriotic commitment to helping our fellow Americans, and substantially increase donations to charity by proposing a tax credit for charitable contributions. But he isn't.
The Bush handlers are so good at defense that you'd think they enjoy it more than scoring. They have successfully avoided being tarred with the Enron scandal, although they had better make up their minds to abandon their claim of executive privilege over documents Congress wants, lest they appear as guilty as Clinton always did.
Nobody thinks Bush doesn't care about the recession and everyone knows that he's pushed a stimulus package to help cure it. Bush has managed to blunt the attack on his attorney general for the supposed abridgment of the rights of suspected terrorists. But, as Winston Churchill said after the escape from France of the British and much of the French Army, just one step ahead of Hitler's army, "Wars are not won by evacuations."
Bush needs to seize control over events with offense. He can't lean on his ratings any more than a football team can sit on its lead in the fourth quarter. If the only initiatives are coming from the Democrats, Bush will fall victim to the same conundrum that baffled him before 9-11 -- how does a president who believes in less government govern? How can you lead a nation when you don't believe in an enlarged public sector? Bush fumbled for an answer throughout the late spring and summer of 2001. His father groped for one in the year after the Gulf War.
The Bushes better figure it out. Otherwise, it will be like father ... like son.
Dick Morris is a political consultant who has worked with Sen. Trent Lott, former President Bill Clinton, and Mexican President Vincente Fox, among others.