Bush gets deal on budget--but pays high price

October 29, 1990|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Like the body of a bruised and bloodied boxing champ, the state of George Bush's presidency after his long struggle with Congress to reach a budget deal raises the morning-after question of whether the prize was worth the price.

Mr. Bush achieved his primary objective: a five-year, $490 billion plan that is expected to reduce the deficit by $40 billion next year. "That is a major achievement that no one ever thought would be possible," declared the White House spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater.

But consider the cost:

* The president yielded to the Democrats in Congress on almost every point, agreeing to a package that includes income tax rates increases, no growth incentives, little budget reform and deep cuts in defense spending while allowing social spending to go unscathed.

* He sent so many different signals of his position during the budget talks that he looked buffoonish. Newspapers all over the country carried photos of the president of the United States responding to a question on his current tax stand by pointing to his derriere and urging reporters to "read my hips."

A White House aide later moaned privately, "How could we have let him do that? The staff's job is to protect these people from their proclivities."

* The president's unusually high popularity rating in the polls plummeted nearly 30 percentage points.

* Mr. Bush alienated so many members of his own party in Congress that he risked losing his only real source of domestic power: vetoes that stick. The split widened last week when the White House attacked Edward J. Rollins, chief strategist for Republican House candidates, for urging them to keep their distance from the GOP president.

* The budget deal Mr. Bush won is at best only a small start on taming the deficit beast, which is projected to reach $260 billion in fiscal 1991 even with the $40 billion reduction. And some believe the tax-increase components actually could impede progress on the deficit by taking money out of the economy while it's on the brink of recession.

"It was an unmitigated disaster for Bush," said David Mason of the Heritage Foundation.

The most charitable view offered outside the White House these days is that Mr. Bush at least deserves credit for the effort.

"After all, we've been struggling with this problem for a decade," observed Thomas E. Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution.

"His best hope, his only hope, is that this will all be forgotten two years from now when the economy is purring along," said Stuart Eizenstat, domestic policy adviser to President Jimmy Carter.

Nearly everyone acknowledges Mr. Bush had no choice but to seek a deal on the deficit now or face an almost certain recession by 1992.

A sluggish economy, combined with the unexpectedly large burden of bailing out the savings-and-loan industry, drove up the deficit so fast just during the six months of the budget talks that the increase more than offsets the reductions agreed to. Mr. Bush also faced the prospect that foreign investors might have lost confidence in the economy and refused to keep financing the U.S. debt.

"He cashed in some of his political capital for the benefit of the country," White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu said of Mr. Bush in an ABC television interview yesterday.

But observers say Mr. Bush made many mistakes along the way, most relating to his campaign pledge not to raise taxes. Some also say he waited too long to get started on the budget talks and then made it easy for the Democrats to say he was out to protect the rich by.

During the talks, the Bush White House was revealed to be much less organized and agile on political and domestic policy than it appears on foreign affairs. Mr. Sununu fended off questions yesterday about whether he and Budget Director Richard G. Darman were about to be fired.

But the question of whether all the agony was worth it can't really be answered until it is clear how well the economy responds.

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