WASHINGTON -- At times during the last three days, it seemed that George Bush was speaking with different voices about his intentions on the budget, that he was suffering from a political split personality. As it turned out, he was.
One minute, he indicated that he was open to trading acceptance of higher taxes on the wealthy for a lower tax rate on capital gains; the next, he wasn't. One moment, he seemed to be giving House Republicans the go-ahead to negotiate that kind of deal; the next, he was saying it would be "a waste of time."
The reason for the flipping, flopping, floundering and general chaos engulfing the White House this week is that behind the scenes there has been an intense struggle for the
mind of the president.
On one side are House Republicans, wanting the fractured party to pull together and wanting the White House to give them some attention and respect. They have been pushing Mr. Bush to give them room to bring out their own budget plan, an alternative to the bipartisan summit deal that is now being amended by the congressional leadership.
On the other side are the two White House budget negotiators, John H. Sununu and Richard G. Darman, who want to keep some distance between Mr. Bush and the House Republican alternative. This way, the White House can keep working with the rarefied group of congressional leaders such as Dan Rostenkowski, Democratic chairman of the House Ways and MeansCommittee, to come up with a deal as close as possible to the one they con
cocted at a budget summit last month.
Mr. Bush's public vacillation has reflected both the consensus nature of his governing and his characteristic desire to please all of the people all of the time.
When on Tuesday morning Mr. Bush first seemed sympathetic to a trade of higher taxes on the wealthy for a capital gains tax cut, he was reflecting the pleas of the House Republicans, who have been telling him that they can deliver on such a deal.
But in the latest of a series of conflicting signals since then, the president left embarrassed House Republicans in the lurch yesterday by announcing that he did not think it was a good idea even to talk about that kind of bargain, because it would drive the negotiations in a way that would favor the Democrats.
With that announcement, he was not only reflecting the views of his chief of staff, Mr. Sununu, and the White House budget director, Mr. Darman, but was actually reading their words, since it was Mr. Darman himself who had written the statement.
"I do not believe such a compromise is now possible," the president told a group of Republican congressman at the White House yesterday afternoon.
"Indeed, I'm quite concerned that pursuing it in the current context may not only fail, it may legitimize something farther to the left that we cannot accept."
The confusion and the increasing rift with House Republicans have sent a shock through GOP circles.
Some White House officials are increasingly anxious, in private, both about the lack of a coherent strategy and about the insular approach, even within the White House, of Mr. Sununu and Mr. Darman. There are also fears that the scars Mr. Sununu has left on White House relations with Congress will not disappear so easily, even after a deal is reached.
Republican critics suggest that the problem actually starteeven before the summit deal fell through a week ago.
The attitude of Mr. Sununu and Mr. Darman on the budget was jTC much like the attitude of the owner of the Titanic, the critics say. Just as no lifeboats were needed because the Titanic was not going to sink, so no fallback strategy had been needed because the two advisers never for a moment believed that the summit plan on which they had lavished so much time and attention could fail.
"We have no strategy because no one here believed we wergoing to lose in the first place. No one knows what's going on, and it's scaring me," an administration official close to the proceedings said yesterday.
Mr. Sununu and Mr. Darman believe that the damage to the presidency will be reversed instantly if they can get the kind of budget deal that emerged from their negotiations with congressional leaders. They have never stopped believing, White House officials say, that the deal is the cleverest one possible, and they believe that the White House can claim victory only if the final product is close to the original one.
White House officials say Mr. Sununu feels that House Republicans do not have the votes to pass their own version of the budget and that to pursue it would be counterproductive. But some House Republicans have read the chief of staff's attitude as one more example of the disdain he has shown toward the congressional rank and file.
Mr. Bush's passion for playing all the roles in his administration also appears to have added to the confusion this week.
In the Reagan administration, Cabinet officers or White House officials would be sent out to reporters to float different (x viewpoints to the public. Then, once the White House had decided which of the "trial balloons" had been received best, the president would come forward to support the winning idea.
But Mr. Bush has floated all his own trial balloons. "The president himself is going out and floating different potential postures," said one Republican close to the White House. "And that tends to lead to confusion, because the president is generally thought of as the final arbiter."