BUSH RALLIES REPUBLICANS BY PLEDGING TAX CUTS AND PROMOTING FAMILY VALUES
THE BATTLE BEGINS
BUSH RALLIES REPUBLICANS BY PLEDGING TAX CUTS AND PROMOTING FAMILY VALUES
Nowhere is America's economic an guish more evident than in the des-perate streets of Houston's Fourth Ward. Within sight of the gleaming office towers of the Texas oil capital, and just
eight kilometres north of the Astrodome where
delegates to last week’s Republican National Convention crowned George Bush and Dan Quayle as their presidential and vice-presidential candidates for the Nov. 3 election, flies buzz around uncollected garbage in weed-choked empty lots. Bare dirt paths run between boarded-up businesses and peeling clapboard tenements. Even in daylight, fear suffocates the drugand violence-ridden neighborhood as stiflingly as the humid August haze. “You got to watch what you say,” one resident cautioned before answering questions. “I don’t want to wind up with a tag on my toe.” In the Fourth Ward, the conservative prescription of unfettered free enterprise and old-fashioned family values elicits little more than a scornful laugh from most listeners. “You think you’re going to get businesses here to hire people?” asked John Flowers, who operates a cluttered two-bay carrepair shop at the comer of Gray and Bailey streets. “Some days I can’t even hire myself.” Pointing to the stack of old car batteries that power his battered radio, he added, “Look at me, I don’t even have lights in my shop.”
Millions of other Americans are echoing Flowers’s despair—and demanding action to remedy it. With the election just two months away, voters in every region and tax bracket say that the economy is their top concern. And more than 90 per cent of them, according to some polls, say that real change is needed in the direction of the country. The nearly unanimous mood of change added to the pressures facing 2,210 voting delegates wrestling with debates over abortion, traditional values and the economy at the Astrodome.
With Bush and Quayle trailing their Democratic rivals, William Clinton and Albert Gore, by as much as 25 points in some polls on the eve of the convention, even Bush’s allies were impatient for him to offer a clear declaration of how he plans to rescue the recession-hit economy—and his presidency. The answer, when it finally came last Thursday night, was direct, combative—and deeply conservative. Offering voters what he said was a choice between “the tattered blanket of bureaucracy” and “freedom and incentives,”—including acrossthe-board tax cuts—Bush declared: “This election is about change. The question is, who
do you trust to make change work for you?” By the close of the convention, Bush had plainly breathed new life into many of his party’s foot soldiers. “I thought it was wonderful,” said Iowa delegate Karen Hempen of the President’s speech. “It was what I wanted to hear and I think the American people are going to understand what George Bush wants to do for this country.” Still, the warm reception from the Republican faithful could not entirely undo a series of earlier missteps. Mixed messages from both the convention floor and Bush himself, a thinly patched-over division over abortion and discouraging reports on the per-
formance of the U.S. economy all served to undercut the air of combat-ready confidence.
Still, Bush used fighting words to open what is certain to be one of the most bitterly contested presidential races in recent American history. Briskly disposing with widely expressed doubts about his personal health, the 68-yearold Bush pointedly noted at the outset that “I feel great,” then quickly claimed credit for virtually every positive international development of the past four years. Asking his audience to consider “what we’ve done,” he recited a list
of changes ranging from the crumbling of apartheid in South Africa to the collapse of Soviet communism. But he saved the bulk of his nearly hour-long speech for a spirited counterattack against his Democratic opponents and their claim that Bush’s economic policies are to blame for higher unemployment and stagnant personal incomes. “Our policies haven’t failed,” Bush countered. “They haven’t been tried.” Repeatedly linking Clinton to what he called the “gridlocked Democratic Congress,” Bush said that only legislative inaction had prevented him from implementing a job-creating program of lower federal spending and tax cuts.
The campaign, however, is clearly not going to be fought solely on the question of which
party can best lift America out of its economic doldrums. Although Bush himself made only comparatively mild references to the subject, the elusive and potentially explosive theme of so-called family values ran through the fourday convention like a moral and emotional tripwire (page 32). Several Republican speakers invoked it repeatedly to question Clinton’s courage and patriotism, his lawyer wife’s independent career and the Democrats’ support for the protection of homosexuals’ rights.
The most vitriolic attacks came from Patrick Buchanan. The unsuccessful right-wing challenger for the Republican nomination faulted Hillary Clinton, the wife of the Democratic candidate, for embodying “radical feminism.” But Quayle also joined the attack, telling a wildly cheering audience that “Americans try to raise their children to understand right and wrong—only to be told that every so-called lifestyle alternative is morally equivalent. That is wrong.” What divides his party from the Democrats, declared Quayle, “is the difference between fighting for what is right and refusing to see what is wrong.”
The stridently moralistic tone of those and many of the other addresses to the Houston gathering may have consolidated Bush’s standing among the evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who populate much of his party’s right wing. But it also provided a clear field for Clinton’s claim to represent the more moderate centre in U.S. politics. Said the Democrat: “This Republican party has obviously been taken over by the extreme, intolerant right wing.”
And there was more than Clinton’s counterpunching to bruise the Republicans last week. Indeed, some of the wounds were self-inflicted. Delegates adopted a platform proposal to amend the Constitution to effectively ban abortion—despite surveys showing that even 71 per cent of registered Republicans oppose the measure. At the same time, mixed signals from the White House and Bush himself about the likelihood of a wholesale cabinet purge after the Nov. 3 election reinforced the impression of a campaign in trouble. And the release of government figures showing the largest surge in new unemployment claims in a decade underscored the fact that, by several key yardsticks, the U.S. economy has suffered its worst four-year performance since the Depression.
Still, the Houston convention plainly produced the so-called bounce in public opinion that the Republicans had counted on. A clutch of polls taken during the week, but before Bush’s speech, showed that the Democrats’ lead had shrunk to somewhere between five and 12 points. Whether that indicated the start of an irreversible trend was clearly far from assured. Indeed, about the only certainty was the one uttered by Vird Crudup, an unemployed resident of the Fourth Ward, as he whiled away an afternoon in the shade of John Flowers’s garage. “The majority always wins,” said Crudup. So far, the majority in America remains up for grabs.
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