SCMP Friday, December 15, 2000


Bush's challenges

It took a long time coming, but the United States finally has its 43rd president - Texas Governor George W. Bush, the apparent winner for nearly five weeks but whose victory will remain forever marred by the peculiar conditions of this year's elections. Now the questions concern the leadership he will provide his country and to some extent the world.
To their credit, both candidates moved quickly to improve a testy mood. Vice-President Al Gore conceded with grace though without admitting that he actually lost, for he surely remains convinced that he would be on top if only more Florida ballots were recounted. Mr Bush responded with remarks about the need for conciliation and compromise. If this atmosphere holds, America should avoid the angry divisions which many feared would follow this disputed election.
Once in office, Mr Bush seems likely to run his White House in the style of Ronald Reagan, another leader of limited intellectual curiosity who grasped a few big themes and delegated the work to others. But his ideas are quite different. Mr Reagan considered government the enemy and tried to shrink it (he failed), and fought the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union (which soon after crumbled). Mr Bush has more prosaic goals which involve both reducing and using government powers, while promoting global stability.
He will face complex challenges. He begins as only the fourth US president to gain the job despite losing the popular vote; his nationwide count was 330,000 less than that of Mr Gore. Mr Bush won because court rulings gave him victory in Florida, though unofficial counts may yet show that he lost there, too. And he will face a Congress in which his Republican Party's small majority in the lower house shrank further and a Senate majority became a 50-50 tie.
The new chief executive also will assume office just as the longest economic expansion in US history slows to a crawl and may halt completely; the dreaded word recession is being heard. If there is a relapse, none of Mr Bush's more ambitious plans for tax cuts and social reforms will do well on Capitol Hill.
These priorities largely are about social issues. He wants a US$1.3 trillion tax cut over the coming 10 years, which critics call both poor economics and a handout to the rich. He hopes to revise funding for the national social security (pension) programme by diverting some of its funds into the stock market and away from government coffers; many analysts believe this would bankrupt the system. And he wants to enforce higher education standards while allowing, with tax money, more parents to choose private schools and others outside the established education structure. Critics claim this would savage the public system.
Economic worries and a divided Congress probably will combine to prevent most of this from happening. Much more likely are modest changes which incorporate Democratic Party proposals - reducing the so-called income tax "marriage penalty" and estate taxes, for example, and giving local schools extra funds but with strings attached. There won't be any wholesale reduction of government's role, even if there is more trimming around the edges of the kind Mr Gore promoted on President Bill Clinton's behalf.
Of more concern in Asia are the Bush foreign policy plans. Here there are grounds for concern, even though he is surrounding himself with some of the more able hands from his father's administration of a decade ago.
For one thing, Mr Bush has referred to China as America's "strategic competitor" rather than its "strategic partner", a term Mr Clinton used briefly. Some of his advisers inherently distrust Beijing's diplomatic motives and are willing to sell Taiwan more advanced weapons than President Clinton allowed. Combined with their strong support for theatre and national missile defence systems, this suggests grave problems ahead for the Sino-American relationship. The fact that Mr Bush promises to give Japan relations a higher profile may also irritate the Chinese.
On the other hand, he is less likely to lecture Beijing in public about political issues and he will want to expand foreign trade and investment. In addition, he has some counsellors - including his father - who will take a long-term look at China relations and counsel against aggravating moves. So their future tenor remains unclear.
It is probably no accident that Beijing officials this week told five visiting American sinologists their cross-strait policy is one of wait and see, while toning down military rhetoric - even if they won't deal with Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian. (One of those visitors is a Bush adviser while another just left the Clinton White House). They have obvious reasons for sending conciliatory signals Mr Bush's way as he puts his administration together and sets his policies.
They are wise to do so. Given his political and economic constraints, president-elect Bush seems certain to seek only modest reforms on the home front, and will want to avoid new security problems abroad.