George Bush hit the campaign trail last week, an obviously welcome respite from the bitter and often embarrassing budget battle back in Washington. At stops in Texas, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan and Illinois, where he tried to shore up support for Republican candidates in the congressional and gubernatorial elections on Nov. 6, the President attacked the Democrat-controlled Congress for the political impasse over the federal budget for the fiscal year that opened on Oct. 1. He even portrayed himself as an outsider fighting the denizens of Washington. In Glen Ellyn, 111., as country singer Eddie Rabbit struck up American Boy, a new anthem for the troops in the Middle East, Bush declared, “Oh, how nice it is to be out where the real people are, outside of Washington, D.C.” Americans, he added, are tired of “the same old inside-the-Beltway hogwash.” Unfortunately, for a man who has held many posts in the capital, both appointed and elected, that Ronald Reagan-style approach seemed less than credible. “He can’t pull off that trick,” said Geoffrey Garin, a Washingtonbased Democratic pollster. “Everyone sees him as the ultimate insider, the quintessential Establishment politician.”
For Bush, who had been riding a swell of public and congressional support for his management of the Persian Gulf crisis, the budget imbroglio has come as a splash of cold reality.
His June abandonment of his read-my-lips pledge not to raise taxes had alienated many conservative Republicans. And his repeated flip-flops two weeks ago, on which tax plan he found acceptable, dropped his approval rating in public-opinion polls to 55 per cent from 76 per cent in a single week. Bush’s indecision— and his apparent inclination to cut social spending rather than lay a heavier tax burden on wealthy Americans—also gave soak-the-rich Democrats a ready issue in the upcoming elections, in which 435 House seats, 35 Senate seats and 36 governorships are on the line. Warned David Mason, deputy-vice-president for government relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington: “The controversy, vacillation and backtracking hurt Republican candidates. But if the President doesn’t recover and find themes to attract the voters, it will hurt him, too.”
All last week, legislators wrangled over the budget. Senators worked around the clock to complete a bipartisan package that would slice a total of $500 billion over five years from the perennial annual deficit. On Friday, they voted 54 to 46 to pass a compromise bill, which would raise the gasoline tax to 18.5 cents from nine cents, cut Medicare benefits and limit tax deductions for the wealthy. That move left a dozen committees meeting through the weekend to try to reconcile the Senate bill with
one passed by the House of Representatives.
The House proposal features an income-tax increase for the wealthiest Americans, raising the top bracket to 33 from 28 per cent— something Bush has said he would not accept—and it avoids gas taxes and heavy Medicare cuts. At week’s end, the President, back in Washington after his campaign swing, signed an emergency spending bill to keep the government operating until the new budget deadline on Oct. 24.
The budget crisis, which had been building for 10 months, came to a head on Oct. 5, when the House rejected a bipartisan deal that Bush had ironed out with congressional leaders. The following day, Bush, trying to exert pressure on the legislators, vetoed a temporary spending measure, leading to a shutdown of such government-run sites as the Statue of Liberty over the Columbus Day weekend. The President then signed that measure on Oct. 8—and he has been wavering ever since.
The essential question was whether Bush would accept an increase in taxes on the wealthy in exchange for a reduction in the capital-gains tax. The answer was elusive: in news conferences and meetings with legislators, he appeared to change his mind repeatedly—as many as five times in three days. Suddenly, the President who heard little but hurrahs for his strong stand in the Gulf encountered a chorus of open ridicule. Said Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster in Washington: “George Bush has two Achilles heels, rich and wimp, and he managed to expose both of them on the same day.”
Even fellow Republicans joined in, with House minority whip Newt Gingrich arguing that Bush had blurred partisan lines on taxes even as Republicans were seeking re-election. To some analysts, the fact that Republicans felt free to break with Bush—without risking presidential wrath—was a mark of his weakness. Said Norman Omstein, resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington: “They should have felt that, if Bush goes after me, I’ll lose my left testicle.”
Bush has made no secret of the fact that he prefers the bold strokes of foreign policy to the tedious horse-trading of domestic affairs. So, obviously, does the American public. Referring to the Pentagon’s Operation Desert Shield in the Gulf, Atlanta pollster Claiboume Darden said: “It’s a lot more fun to see an M-l tank on TV than some clown speaking in Congress. We like tanks, especially in the desert—they look pretty, especially when they make tight turns.” Some analysts argued that Bush’s pratfalls over the budget would even cost him manoeuvrability in the Middle East. “The weaker a president is at home,” cautioned Mason of the Heritage Foundation, “the more difficult it is for him to manage an international crisis.” For the moment, the Gulf fallout remained uncertain. And as the elections approach, American voters will soon decide whether to blame Bush—and Republicans in general—for the nation’s budgetary blues.
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