MARCI McDONALD November 19 1990



MARCI McDONALD November 19 1990




It was as if he sensed the reproach in advance. Lining up at a Houston nursing home near his legal voting address, The Houstonian Hotel, to cast his ballot in last week’s elections, George Bush was uncharacteristically subdued. Gone were the jaunty spring in his step and the playful wisecracks that had marked his first two years as the most popular president to face midterm elections in recent American history. But over the past two months, his personal approval ratings had plummeted by more than 20 points. And one wing of his own Republican party was in open revolt; Vermont Republican Representative Peter Smith had even denounced his policies while Bush sat beside him on the stage eating pancakes at the candidate’s breakfast fund raiser.

In the privacy of his hotel suite on the eve of the election, waiting until well after newspaper and network news deadlines, the President had discreetly signed the controversial bill that was the cause of his woes: the $492-billion budget accord, which had devastated his credibility by breaking his 1988 campaign pledge not to raise taxes.

Last week, as the consequences of that turnabout made themselves felt in the polling booths, an embattled Bush flew back to Washington and closeted himself in the White House for 36 hours to contemplate a vote that dealt a blow to both his party and his personal prestige (pages 37 and 38). Nor could he take any comfort in exit polls indicating that the voters’ two greatest concerns were a recession and a war in the Middle East, both increasingly likely prospects. With Republicans losing one Senate seat—leaving the Democrats with a 56-to-44 majority—and eight seats in the Democratic stronghold of the House of Representatives, Bush now finds his room for negotiating remedies with Congress further reduced.

Unsettling: And after 14 Republicans for whom he campaigned in the 18 hardest-fought races failed to win, analysts concluded that his presidential influence had also shrunk—an unsettling omen only two years before the 1992 elections. Said Richard Viguerie, a campaign

consultant from the Republican right wing: “If he had been on the ballot yesterday against a credible Democrat, he would have suffered a massive defeat.” And Democratic National Committee chairman Ronald Brown said on the morning after the vote: “We are already in the 1992 campaign. Yesterday’s elections were a referendum on George Bush and he failed the test.”

In fact, having broken his anti-tax vow, Bush appeared bereft of the one strong domestic stand around which Republicans had rallied. And in his search for direction, his political compass pointed back towards the Middle East, as he resorted to campaigning against

Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, whom he again insisted on comparing to Adolf Hitler.

Even Bush supporters worried openly that he may never regain the euphoric heights he enjoyed in polls little more than two months ago, buoyed by the collapse of the Cold War and his deft assembly of an international consensus in the Persian Gulf crisis. With 230,000 American troops already deployed in the Saudi Arabian sands, Bush tried to divert attention from his electoral setbacks by calling two news conferences on the same day. The first one centred on the election results. In the second, he aggressively announced that he was switching to an offensive posture in the Middle East, increasing American troop strength by at least another 150,000, cutting U.S. ground forces in Germany by a dramatic 50 per cent to do so.

But reports of that decision had previously filtered out of the Pentagon. And the renewed presidential sabre-rattling failed to subdue more disturbing bulletins from the home front. Last Friday, Bush huddled with his top economic advisers at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Md., over a White House report, to be released this week, that shows a sharp deterioration in the U.S. economy, worsened by the combined Gulf and energy crises.

Futile: Earlier in the week, presidential economic adviser Michael Boskin stopped just short of predicting a re-

cession, calling it instead a

“lull” that could last past mid-1991. But no matter what they called it, other White House officials expressed concerns that Bush’s politically costly budget compromise had already proved futile in averting a damaging downturn.

With the President’s political base and his domestic policy in disarray, the grim economic prospects herald two turbulent years ahead for a man whose own name will appear on the next ballot. As Brown pointed out, “When people are worried about their economic future, they tend to vote Democrat. And frankly, the economy does not look real good.” Declared Republican consultant Lyn Nofziger: “If we’re heading into a recession, it will be more difficult for

Bush to recoup. The presidency is in trouble.” In fact, for Democrats, the election marked the most cheering news for the party in more than a decade. Many of them suddenly expressed new hope for a 1992 presidential race that they had previously assumed would be another Democratic humiliation. In the radically altered political landscape where Bush’s record approval ratings had abruptly been pruned, Louisiana Senator John Breaux, head of the Democrats’ senatorial campaign committee, predicted that some previously reluctant presidential candidates may now risk challenging him. Said Breaux, one of the President’s frequent tennis partners: “This election has shown the emperor is not invincible—indeed, is not a major-leaguer in the political sense. I think we’re going to see a lot more hats in the ring.”

Still, two of the men most mentioned for that contest were wounded by last week’s angry electorate. In New York, Gov. Mario Cuomo, who had anticipated coasting to victory over maverick Republican Pierre Rinfret, received his own warning against complacency. He defeated Rinfret by 53 to 22 per cent—but his showing was 11 percentage points less than in his 1986 landslide over a better-known and better-financed opponent. Said acting Republican National Committee chairman Charles

Black: “That doesn’t exactly look like presidential timber to me.”

But the damage to Cuomo’s image was minor compared with the near-disaster inflicted on another likely Democratic presidential contender, Senator Bill Bradley, by angry New Jersey voters. Despite a 26-point lead that he had held in the polls, the former basketball star only managed to squeak to victory over an obscure opponent named Christine Todd Whitman, by almost four per cent of the vote. Even Whitman, however, acknowledged that Bradley was the object of electoral rage over a $3.3billion package of tax increases enacted by Democratic Gov. James Florio, an action that Bradley refused to criticize. Said the Republicans’ Charles Black: “Voters couldn’t punish Florio for that, so a lot of folks tried to punish Bill Bradley.” Said the senator on the morning after the election: “I got the message, I got the message.”

Reneged: Bradley was a victim of the only clear message that emerged from the largely muddled midterm results: in Kansas, Nebraska and Florida, voters tossed out of office three governors who, like Bush, had reneged on promises not to raise taxes. For Bush, the defeat of Florida’s Republican Gov. Robert Martinez offered a doubly sobering warning. Not only had the President repeatedly cam-

paigned for him, but Bush’s son John Qeb) was Martinez’s campaign chairman. And one of his TV commercials featured First Lady Barbara Bush, in trademark “Bush blue” dress and pearls, claiming that she wished she could vote for the governor.

Like Bradley, Bush emerged from his postelectoral retreat to signal that he had absorbed the electorate’s fiscal lesson. Declaring that he was beginning “remedial work,” he dusted off his pledge not to raise taxes—again—this time “absolutely.” But the explosive issue promises to gather force over the next two years. House Majority Leader Thomas Foley says that when the next congressional session opens in the new year, he will reintroduce a proposed surtax on the nation’s top millionaires, which the Democrats had dropped in final negotiations over the budget package.

In fact, with the taxation debate, Democrats have succeeded in easing their party’s longtime identity crisis—thanks in part to the President himself. After Bush insisted on cutting the capital gains tax and refused to raise other major taxes for the nation’s wealthiest people, Republicans found themselves again depicted as the party of the rich. Almost by default, the Democrats rediscovered their traditional image as defenders of the underprivileged and the middle class. Declared Brown:

“Bush helped us a lot in defining ourselves.”

Still, the Democrats swiftly launched into what appeared to be their favorite sport— internecine party warfare. Last week, Brown, a black Washington lawyer who managed Jesse Jackson’s ultra-liberal 1988 presidential bid, said that Democrats no longer needed to be defensive about their traditional liberal stands. But within half an hour of that statement, Virginia Senator Charles Robb, one of the leaders of the party’s conservative wing, contradicted him.

Spruced: Robb claimed that the election results proved that only a “moderate, mainstream”—and by implication Southern—Democratic candidate could win in the next presidential election.

As it happened, that profile neatly matched his own, as well as that of Georgia’s Senator Sam Nunn, the chairman of the Senate armed services committee, who recently spruced up his image by resigning from a suburban Washington golf club that effectively bars both blacks and women. Said Louisiana’s Breaux, with a barb aimed at Cuomo: “A northeastern candidate with a traditional old-style message cannot be effective in 1992.”

Arguing that the electorate had recoiled from ideological extremes, conservative Democrats cited the example of Georgia Representative Newt Gingrich, the standard-bearer of

the Republican far right, who almost lost his seat. But Robert Borosage of Washington’s liberal Institute for Policy Studies claimed that last week’s results telegraphed just the opposite message. With Vermont’s election of Bernard Sanders, the first socialist to win a congressional seat since 1948, he pointed out, “we

just elected the most radical man to the Senate in its history—that must mean something.” The debate signalled a potentially bruising battle for the soul of the Democratic party. Both sides can draw conflicting conclusions from a vote that seemed largely a tangle of contradictions. “I thought we might have more definitive tea leaves,” acknowledged Robb. Proponents of almost any viewpoint could find

support in sometimes self-cancelling voting patterns. Although pollsters had predicted that voters were in a restive, iconoclastic mood, fed up with the politicians in power, 95 per cent of incumbents were restored once more to the perquisites of their offices. But proponents of the anti-incumbent theory claimed justification in the fact that many fixtures of the political Establishment found their margins of victory sharply trimmed.

In Texas, Democratic state treasurer Ann Richards claimed her gubernatorial victory over cowboy-hatted Republican Clayton Williams as a victory for women. “There will be a lot of little girls who open their history texts to see my picture,” she said, “and they will say, ‘If she can do it, so can I.’ ” Similarly, abortion-rights activists, who saw Richards’s win as a sign that the issue ¡5 could cut through party lines, z had to confront a mixed message from across the nation. In seven states, including Texas, Florida and California, the governor is no longer an abortion foe, but a supporter of women’s choice on the issue. However, in four others, the statehouse, which now holds the power to strike down abortion bills, went the other way.

Even when both Democratic and Republican leaders agreed that the $590-billion collapse of savings-and-loan institutions, the biggest financial scandal in the country’s history, had played

Pre-election Balance Contested Results New Balance Gains/Losses Governors 29 Dem. 20 Dem. 19 Dem. 28 Dem.* 21 Rep. 16 Rep. 14 Rep. 19 Rep.* 2 Ind. 2 Ind. Senate 55 Dem. 17 Dem. 18 Dem. 56 Dem. + 1 Dem. 45 Rep. 18 Rep. 17 Rep. 44 Rep. -1 Rep. House 258 Dem. 435 Seats 267 Dem. +9 Dem. 175 Rep. 167 Rep. -8 Rep. 2 vacancies 1 other * A runoff will be held in Arizona

almost no role in the balloting, events soon contradicted them. Two days after the election, California Senator Alan Cranston, one of five senators under investigation by the Senate ethics committee this week for their ties to former Lincoln Savings and Loan Association president Charles Keating, announced that he was resigning as Democratic party whip and would not run again in 1992. The 76-year-old senator attributed his decision to prostate cancer. But exit polls in the California gubernatorial race may have hastened his decision: 24 per cent of those surveyed said that they thought Cranston should resign immediately.

Muted: The Democrats congratulated themselves for winning the governorships of Florida and Texas, two of the three largest states that will pick up new congressional seats during the critical redistribution process next year.

But the cheers were muted because the party lost the biggest prize of all, California, which will gain the same total of new members, seven.

In fact, gazing into the midterm crystal ball, the clearest picture of the electoral future to emerge is one that bears an eerie resemblance to the past. At a time when politics around the world have taken on all the breathless possibilities of a roller-coaster ride, Luxury Rolls

the George Bush who has -

emerged from last month’s budget battles calls to mind the candidate of the same name who floundered through the opening months of the 1988 presidential campaign accused of indecision, a lack of what he called “the vision thing” and an apparent inability to hold together the fractious Republican coalition forged by Ronald Reagan.

But in 1988, two shrewd political alchemists transformed Bush’s fortunes almost overnight. Speech-writer Peggy Noonan scripted him a catchy populist credo: “Read my lips—no new taxes.” And Republican strategist Lee Atwater first masterminded a bruising negative campaign that destroyed his Democratic challenger, Michael Dukakis, then healed the wounds with a dose of conciliatory feel-good politics. Now, after the publication of her White House memoirs, What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era, Noonan, 39,

has decamped to best-seller stardom in New York City. And Atwater, also 39, has been sidelined from politics, fighting for his life against a malignant brain tumor.

Some analysts said that Bush did not feel their absence until the elections because of an extraordinary conjunction of lucky circumstances. “During the first two years,” declared

one Republican consultant, David Keene, “all of the dice were rolling the right way: communism collapsed, the economy was good and the invasion of Panama was a huge success.” Even Bush had said in the early, uneventful months of his presidency that he owed his soaring approval ratings to the presidential spaniel, Millie, and her photogenic litter of puppies. But as Keene pointed out, “the trouble with high opinion polls is that people conclude they’re popular because they’re themselves, and they stop listening.” He cited a claim by White House chief of staff John Sununu that Bush could break his no-tax vows because he “was so popular, he could do whatever he wanted.” Added Keene: “That kind of thinking is a great leveller.”

Now, Bush has to win back the party’s disaffected right wing, the cornerstone of Reagan’s constituency, before he can tackle his Democratic opponents in 1992. But so alienated are conservatives that many are searching for a candidate of their own to challenge his apparent lock on the Republican nomination. And most observers predict another bitter, noholds-barred campaign in the general election.

Blatant: Already, Bush, who two years ago launched an effort to recruit blacks to the Republican party, has apparently abandoned that outreach. Last month, he vetoed a major civil rights bill, largely to avoid alienating white southerners. And after campaigning for North Carolina’s ultra-right-wing Senator Jesse Helms against his black Democratic opponent, Harvey Gantt, Bush refused to denounce one of Helms’s most blatant racebaiting tactics. Helms used so-called ballot security cards in heavily black precincts, warning people about fines and jail terms if they were caught voting at the wrong poll. Rev. Willie Bruce Simon, a black Baptist pastor from Dallas, said of the President: “This is the first time he’s had to make some serious decisions. The real George Bush has just stood up.”

The patrician Bush has never been comfortable playing the lower registers of down-and-dirty politics. And he may not have to. As the g prospect of a war in the Gulf 5 grows closer to inevitability, I it offers him the possibility of g another enormous, foreignpolicy, public-relations triumph—as well as overwhelming risks. “The Middle East can virtually ensure he’s going to be re-elected,” said Keene, “or that he’s a one-term president. It can save him or destroy him.” Added Robert Borosage: “With a war, Bush can be a great hero or a great fool.” But that is seldom a choice that mere mortals, even presidents, can control.

MARCI McDONALD in Washington