End of sweetheart period marked by Bush defeats

October 09, 1990|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- October looks like the cruelest month so far for George Bush, who in eight short days has watched his sweetheart presidency start to sour.

September's hero of the Rose Garden, who proclaimed victory over the budget deficit after a summer-long struggle with congressional Democrats, was immediately buffeted by the most humiliating defeats of his 20 months in office.

He put his popularity and prestige on the line in a televised appeal for support on the package of tax increases and benefit cuts he said were necessary for the long-term good -- and the American people responded by telling their congressmen to vote no.

He orchestrated an extraordinary round-the-clock lobbying effort in the House that involved personal appeals by his three Republican predecessors -- only to see his budget package crushed in an attack led by members of his own party.

And with Congress continuing to wrangle over the details of a substitute budget proposal, it's possible that Mr. Bush may not even accomplish his bottom-line goal of significant deficit reduction.

"Three weeks ago it also looked like the Persian Gulf situation was going to be solved quickly, and that's not going too well either," observed the Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart. "October represents a dicey month for George Bush. It's hard to know how it plays out."

A Times Mirror poll taken over the weekend suggests the budget fracas already has taken its toll on Mr. Bush's historically high job approval ratings.

In a nationwide telephone survey of 1,213 adults contacted Oct. 4 through Oct. 7, 55 percent said they approved of the way Mr. Bush is doing his job -- a 12 percentage point drop from the 68 percent approval rating he garnered in a similar survey taken in mid-September.

While part of the decline may be a leveling off from a 76 percent high in August, which Mr. Bush drew in the wake of his decision to send troops to keep the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in check, the budget deal was clearly a factor.

Of those surveyed, 41 percent said they opposed the budget package, compared with 35 percent who said it should be passed. Opposition was particularly strong among those over 50, who may have been influenced by the proposal for large cuts in Medicare benefits.

But the White House says Mr. Bush accepted all along that he was taking a calculated risk in hopes that the goal of a balanced bTC budged would justify the rough ride along the way.

"We knew that this was going to happen, that it was going to be mean and ugly and cost percentage points at the polls," a White House official said. "But the president's overriding interest was in getting a deficit agreement."

Since last spring, when the anemic economy started sending out distress signals, aides say Mr. Bush has been determined to do whatever is necessary to avoid a recession. His prospects for re-election in 1992 are believed to be closely tied to the state of the U.S. economy, and Mr. Bush's ability to address the nation's problems -- both foreign and domestic -- has been increasingly hampered by empty pockets.

In the process of reaching a budget deal with congressional leaders, the president made several concessions, including yielding on the "no new taxes" pledge that had been the theme song of his 1988 presidential campaign.

The problem came in trying to sell a package full of easy and obvious targets to hate -- like the proposed tax increases on gasoline and home heating oil, as well as the substantial cuts in benefits to the elderly.

Some critics say Mr. Bush didn't start early enough or explain his cause well enough in his television address. But A. James Reichley, an expert on the presidency at the Brookings Institution, observed, "It's hard to expect any president to be able to persuade voters to rush to their phones asking that the taxes be raised."

Mr. Bush's television address was given at the behest of both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, who pleaded with him to give them political cover.

Some vote-counters argue that he did succeed in picking up more support than might otherwise have been there, but the lopsided vote against the package gave the strong impression of a president rejected.

Most hurtful to Mr. Bush in the institutional sense was that the rebellion was led by the conservative wing of his own party, in particular House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, D-Ga.

"The White House vastly overestimated the loyalty of some of their troops," said a longtime GOP insider. He noted that long-simmering resentments, as well as the perception of new affronts to congressmen by White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu and Budget Director Richard G. Darman contributed to the explosion.

But others contend that to some degree the problem was simply that the task was so difficult.

"Darman and Sununu are being made scapegoats by people who are upset because they finally have to make choices they cannot avoid," an administration official observed.

Mr. Bush's decision to let the government shut down in the absence of a budget agreement also has been attacked, with some Democratic critics labeling it "childish" and "petulant." But backers of the president say it kept the pressure on.

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