Vice-President George Bush seemed to realize for the first time last week that his election campaign was faltering in the early going. As-
sured of the Republican nomination after his last remaining rival, Pat Robertson, dropped out of the race on May 16, Bush suddenly found himself trailing Democratic front-runner Michael Dukakis in a series of opinion polls. At
the same time, his presidential aspirations seemed to be intertwined with controversial White House policies and the legal problems facing Attorney General Edwin Meese. In an effort to regain momentum, Bush hurriedly switched tactics in midweek to battle his way out from under President Ronald Reagan’s increasingly unwelcome shadow. Clearly, his priority was to develop new aggressive policies of his own and to distance himself from scandals surrounding the Reagan administration.
A series of polls published last week forced Bush to change his strategy.
First, a New York Times/CBS News poll showed that Massachusetts Gov. Dukakis, the almostcertain Democratic nominee, had emerged as the early favorite for the presidential election in November. The poll showed Dukakis ahead of Bush 49 per cent to 39 per cent. Only two months ago opinion polls showed the two men with equal support. The survey also indicated that Dukakis had capitalized on public doubts about Bush’s leadership capabilities, as well as about the Reagan administration’s handling of key issues. Then, a new Gallup poll showed Dukakis leading Bush 54 per cent to 38 per cent. And in a Los Angeles Times poll, Dukakis led 53 per cent to 36 per cent among California voters. As one Bush aide said, “We did not expect our man to be this far behind this early.”
During a stop on May 18 in Califor-
nia, where he was campaigning for the June 7 primary, Bush acknowledged that his sinking ratings were attributable at least in part to a criminal investigation of Meese and the Reagan administration’s unsuccessful efforts to oust Panama’s controversial leader, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega. But he downplayed the effects of those issues on his campaign. Said Bush: “I don’t worry about it; the election is 5 */2 months away. The thing hasn’t really
started in terms of Democrats versus Republicans, and we haven’t gotten any of that in focus, and it won’t be until after the [August Republican nominating] convention.” Republican consultant Charles Black, an adviser to the Bush campaign, reflected more concern. Said Black: “Bush is showing some negatives. His favorability is not as high as we’d like.”
Later that day Bush demonstrated a noticeable hardening of policy. For the first time he separated himself from Reagan administration negotiations with Noriega. The White House had apparently offered to drop federal drug-trafficking and money-laundering indictments against the general in a deal to remove him from office. In a speech to the Los Angeles Police Academy, Bush declared, “I won’t bargain
with terrorists and I won’t bargain with drug dealers either, whether they are on U.S. or foreign soil.”
The vice-president’s bold words indicated a recognition that the Reagan administration’s unsuccessful efforts to oust the Panamanian strongman have undercut his own efforts to appear to be taking a tough approach to drug control.
At the same time, Dukakis began to use the Noriega negotiations as a campaign issue. Aided by a landslide victory over Democratic rival Jesse Jackson in last week’s Oregon
primary, Dukakis attacked the Reagan administration’s past relationship with Noriega as an ally, pledging to launch a “real war” instead of a “phoney war” on drugs.
But in the long run it is the Reagan administration’s scandals that may prove the most damaging for Bush. Five years ago Democratic congresswoman Patricia Schroeder of Colorado began compiling a list of administration officials who had been accused of ethical violations. Schroeder’s “sleaze list,” as she calls it, has grown to 242 names and now threatens to become a
cutting issue in the 1988 campaign — with Meese at the centre.
For the past year independent counsel James McKay has been investigating Meese for alleged influence peddling. He has studied his financial affairs, his ties to the troubled Wedtech Corp., a Bronx-based military contractor, and his involvement with a $l-billion Iraqi oil pipeline deal. McKay has said that he has not gathered enough evidence to seek an indictment against the attorney general. But it is widely expected that McKay’s report, due this week, will recommend further scrutiny of Meese’s activities by various government ethics offices.
Last week the attorney general’s problems continued. He fired his chief spokesman, Terry Eastland, for what Eastland later characterized as his insufficiently aggressive defence of Meese against “any and all criticism.” After learning of Eastland’s departure, Meese’s top speech writer, William Schambra, resigned in protest. The departures from the justice department were the latest in a series that began on March 29 with the resignations of deputy attorney general Arnold Burns and assistant attorney general William Weld.
Reagan has steadfastly refused to abandon Meese. And last week, amid increasing congressional calls for his resignation, the President again expressed his support for the attorney general. Meese himself insists that he has done nothing wrong and refuses to step down, saying that to do so could be interpreted as “an admission of guilt.”
But Peter Teeley, communications director for Bush, acknowledged that Meese is a “liability.” Bush himself said that he is waiting for the independent counsel’s report before making judgments. But he added: “I must say I’m troubled by some of these allegations. It seems to me that the justice department has to be above reproach.”
To help limit the political damage to the vice-president, Iowa Republican congressman James Leach said that Bush will have to distance himself from the White House. He added: “The solution is to let Bush be Bush rather than Reagan’s vice-president. It is a bitter irony that it is George Bush and not Ronald Reagan who is held accountable for the dishonesty of Edwin Meese. Bush has to get out of the White House, away from what might be described as the maiming aspects of the vice-presidency and out into the depths of America.” Last week Bush was moving swiftly in that direction.
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