A BELEAGUERED BUSH LAUNCHES A CAMPAIGN-STYLE BLITZ TO SHORE UP HIS PLUMMETING APPROVAL RATINGS
A NASTY NEW MOOD
In Columbus, Ohio, he went through the equivalent of campaign-trail baby-kissing—dropping by an experimental day care centre where he watched a wideeyed black toddler play a round of Fish Derby on a computer. At the nearby Veterans Memorial Auditorium, he used a speech before 3,000 high-school students, teachers and business and political leaders to attack the Democratcontrolled Congress for legislative holdups. Then, in a series of interviews with local broadcasters, President George Bush blamed the national media for growing public complaints about the country’s economic weakness. And just as he did during the low point of
A BELEAGUERED BUSH LAUNCHES A CAMPAIGN-STYLE BLITZ TO SHORE UP HIS PLUMMETING APPROVAL RATINGS
his 1988 presidential campaign, Bush took his defensive, feel-good message directly to the people. In fact, his four-hour blitz of the American heartland last week was just the beginning. The President is scheduled to make more flying visits across the country this week.
Not only did Bush’s trip to Columbus have the unmistakable trappings of a campaign for re-election, which he still had not officially announced, but it also carried a grim new note of urgency, which had the ring of campaigns past. Gone was Bush’s image as the all-conquering Persian Gulf commander-in-chief who had so deftly assembled an international coalition of support only a year ago. Once more back
in the spotlight was an apparently vacillating, verbally inept candidate accused of embarrassing policy reversals and an inability to come to grips with what he used to repeatedly refer to as “the vision thing.” It was an image reminiscent of the one that had haunted him, however undeservedly, through early 1988. As Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen put it, “Yes, the Wimp is back.”
But with the U.S. economy stagnating and Bush failing to offer solutions to an increasingly
angry electorate before his state of the union address in January, many analysts maintain that now his problems run deeper than his public image. In 1992, they add, voters’ pocketbooks will determine his electoral fortunes. Said Norman Omstein of Washington’s American Enterprise Institute: “There’s no question Bush is floundering right now. If the economy doesn’t recover before the election, he’ll be in awful trouble.”
Last week, as Republicans joined Democrats in criticizing Bush for his inaction on the economy, a new poll indicated that—even without a clear Democratic opponent—the President may once again be fighting for his political life. A New York Times/CBS News survey reported that his approval rating had plummeted to an alltime low of 51 per cent—a 16-per-cent drop in the past month alone, and a huge drop from his wartime high of 90 per cent in January. And for the first time, nearly as many respondents indicated that they would vote for any unnamed Democrat as would vote for Bush (page 22).
At the root of his problems was clearly the recalcitrant economy, which only one out of four of those surveyed said
he was handling well. And last week, the Conference Board, a nonpartisan business research group, reported that consumer confidence had fallen from 60.1 per cent in October to 50.6—its lowest level since 1980. That report added to the gloomy national mood that undercut U.S. Thanksgiving festivities. But with White House advisers deadlocked over how to lift the once vaunted recovery out of its suspended stall, Omstein pointed out that Bush’s strategy of trying to divert discontent from himself to Congress and the media is unlikely to succeed. “This is no Ronald Reagan who delegates everything and sits back and takes a nap,” he said. “This is a guy who prides himself on his hands-on management style. The buck stops on his desk.”
Analysts also note that the current economic pinch is not a recent phenomenon. “This recession is a year old,” said William Schneider, also of the American Enterprise Institute. “But Bush got through about half of it with a nice war in the Persian Gulf. The problem is that now there are no more countries to invade.”
In fact, as the economy suddenly forces Bush’s attention away from his foreign-policy triumphs, it is exposing what many political scientists say should have been apparent in his last campaign: the lack of a clear domestic policy. Added Schneider: “He has no program—he never did. Great ambitious plans are not his style.” The perception also grew among voters that Bush seemed to have little time or interest in their personal concerns as he hurtled from Moscow to the Middle East peace conference in Madrid. Said Stephen Hess of Washington’s Brookings Institution: “There is no question about it: he would much rather be in Beijing.”
The White House finally began responding to the alarms on the home front last month. In Pennsylvania’s off-year Senate race on Nov. 5, analysts saw the upset victory of liberal Democrat Harris Wofford as an angry populist slap at the White House and its candidate, former attorney general Richard Thornburgh. He was one of three Republicans for whom Bush had personally campaigned in recent months and who went down to defeat. In Mississippi, his favorite in the governor’s race, state auditor Peter Johnson, lost the Republican primary to Kirk Fordice, a millionaire contractor who went on to win the statehouse after promising a racist group that he would repeal the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which guaranteed blacks the franchise. And in Louisiana, Bush’s friend Gov. Buddy Roemer lost the all-candidates primary to David Duke, a former neo-Nazi and an ex-grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Although Duke went on to lose the governor’s race to Democrat Edwin Edwards, his racially coded rhetoric won 56 per cent of the Republican vote in a contest that sent an equally disturbing signal. Analysts claimed that voters were venting their economic frustrations in a nasty new mood of racial scapegoating.
Those tensions are likely to reappear if Duke challenges Bush in the southern presidential primaries next spring. In announcing his probable candidacy, he accused Bush of betraying mainstream Republicans by consenting to an updated civil-rights act that Duke termed “a civil-wrongs act.” And he acknowledged that one of his motivations is to push the President further to the right on such racial issues as affirmative action—“to make George Bush adhere to the policies of the party.” With another right-wing Republican, conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan, also threatening to take on Bush in February’s New Hampshire primary, political experts predict that the President will, in fact, be forced to shift rightward to recapture the Republican nomination. But that shift could alienate many moderate voters in the November election. Said Atlanta pollster Clayboume Darden, recalling the 1988 election: “David Duke would be to George
Bush what Jesse Jackson was to Michael Dukakis and the Democrats; he’ll be stealing votes from them.”
Already, Republicans express concern that a thirdparty campaign by Duke, similar to one by former Alabama governor George Wallace in 1968, could siphon off some of Bush’s support among white males in the southern states—the cornerstone of the Republican presidential coalition. In fact, as Buchanan calls for the party to embrace his isolationist, America-first stance, which opposes free trade, those challenges are the first signs that the disparate coalition that put Reagan and Bush into the White House may finally be cracking—much as the Democrats’ traditional coalition did in 1980.
Bush’s fortunes have also been hurt by his own erratic policy changes, which have left the impression of a presidency in free-fall, out of touch and isolated by White House infighting. After protesting that his foreign travels had no effect on his domestic performance, Bush responded to
Wofford’s victory by promptly cancelling a long-planned Asian trip. Then, when critics accused him of panicking, he quietly rescheduled the trip for later this month. After repeatedly denouncing a congressional civil-rights bill as a “quota bill” that would institutionalize racial quotas in hiring, he eventually consented
to a slightly amended version. But after Duke’s challenge, Bush changed course again. On the eve of a Rose Garden signing ceremony last month, a senior aide issued a memorandum to “terminate” in all federal agencies the very employment practices that the civil-rights bill ensured.
Although Bush ordered the memorandum rescinded, he ended up offending both sides in the debate. And that blunder took place only eight days after he had inserted a line into a New York City fundraising speech attacking banks for high credit-card interest rates. The next day, the Senate passed an amendment to cap the interest rates at 14 per cent—a move that promptly sent the stock market into a 120-point nosedive on Nov. 15.
Bush’s confidants have blamed those missteps on his blustering, unpopular chief of staff, John Sununu, whose departure has long been rumored. But Sununu has served as a handy lightning rod, detracting criticism from the President. To many analysts, a greater concern is Bush himself, who, on domestic as opposed to foreign policy questions, seems to lack both effective answers and innate political instincts. In fact, some experts say that what Bush most needs is not only a speedy end to the recession, but a new foreign enemy on whom he can refo-
cus the nation’s wrath. Or perhaps even an old one. Said Schneider: “If he got rid of Saddam Hussein, his approval ratings would jump—at least until people again focused on the recession.”
FIELDS FOR DREAMERS
The best development for Democrats targeting the White House in 1992: President George Bush is plummeting in opinion polls. The worst: they may not be able to capitalize on his misfortune. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll released last week, 37 per cent of respondents said that they would vote for a Democrat, compared with 39 per cent for Bush. But the six declared Democratic presidential contenders remain relatively unknown outside their home states: most poll respondents did not express a preference among them. Meanwhile, the potential pack leader, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, remained non-committal about his presidential aspirations. Analysts say that he would be the Democratic candidate with the widest national name recognition, and the most able to amass a
formidable war chest. But Cuomo, 59, says that he first has to settle a serious budget problem in his state before announcing a decision. The current candidates and their platforms:
William (Bill) Clinton: The 45-year-old five-term Arkansas governor is a moderate who appeals to both conservatives, because of his promises to crack down on welfare freeloaders, and liberals, with his plans for scholarship and health-care programs. But his speaking style lacks polish, and he has been dogged by persistent rumors of marital infidelity.
Robert (Bob) Kerrey: The Nebraska senator is the liberal most acceptable to conservatives. He won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery in the Vietnam War, in which a grenade blew off part of his right leg. And the 48-year-old divorced politician’s onagain, off-again relationship with actress Debra Winger lends star quality to his campaign. His pet project is a universal health-care program.
Thomas (Tom) Harkin: The 52-year-old Iowa senator is an unabashed liberal who promises to slash $180 billion from the military
budget to build roads, bridges and communications systems. He has strong support among party stalwarts, but some Democrats say that he is too radical to ever win the White House.
Paul Tsongas: The former Massachusetts senator, 50, calls himself a pro-business liberal who favors tax breaks to spur economic growth. He was the first to enter the campaign, in April, but is still considered a long shot.
Douglas Wilder: Virginia’s first black governor, Wilder, 60, is a moderate who promises to redirect $56 billion from the federal budget to fund education and public works and provide tax relief for middleclass Americans.
Edmund (Jerry) Brown: The 53-yearold former California governor, known as Governor Moonbeam for his unconventional style, is running as an outsider. He condemns corruption and advocates a ban on campaign contributions from specialinterest groups.
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