Washington President Bush is out on the campaign trail giving 'em heckBut his personal stumping is at best irrelevant and perhaps counterproductive. The climate he has created for Republicans cannot be changed in a few days of rhetoric.
The most striking silence in these final days of the 1990 campaign is that of Republicans who even three months ago would have been touting their connections to a remarkably popular president. Today they are reading the opinion polls charting the decline in Mr. Bush's approval -- and in generic support for Republicans like themselves.
The debate over taxes in Congress has thrown them all on the defensive. In their view, the president made the most politically destructive move not by agreeing to raise taxes in contravention of his 1988 campaign promise but by conducting the bargaining in a way that has handed Democrats the fairness issue. The picture of the White House and other Republicans defending the wealthiest taxpayers is clearly the one most responsible for those bad poll numbers.
Now the president has been compounding the political felony by seeming to be all over the lot. One day he is negotiating with the Democratic leadership in Congress; the next he is lambasting those same Democrats in the hollowest kind of campaign rhetoric. His bizarre attempt to position himself as an outsider running against entrenched evil in Washington is laughable. "God, I'm glad to be out of Washington," says the George Bush who has spent the last 25 years here striving up the political ladder.
And his own frustration is coming through in such things as the push to replace Representative Guy Vander Jagt as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee and to fire Edward J. Rollins, the respected professional who has been running that committee. Mr. Rollins made the mistake of advising party candidates to put some distance between themselves and the White House, so Mr. Bush's ire is not surprising. But that kind of political retribution is exacted after an election, not in the final days of a campaign, when it can only contribute to the picture of disarray in the party.
Mr. Bush has also put himself at jeopardy by being forced to
endure small humiliations that politicians ordinarily would be too afraid to visit on a president. In Oklahoma the other day, Bill Price, the Republican candidate for governor, introduced him by saying: "George Bush on his worst day is a whole lot better than Michael Dukakis on his best day." Then he added that Mr. Bush's friends were standing by him "through thick and thin" -- the clear implication being that this is one of the very thin times, indeed.
Meanwhile, in Vermont new opinion polls showed that Representative Peter Smith has been gaining steadily in an uphill fight for re-election -- apparently because he used a visit from President Bush to publicly disassociate himself from Mr. Bush's policies.
The notion that presidential campaigning means a great deal in congressional campaigns is a doubtful one at best. In 1986, when he was still extremely popular, President Ronald Reagan campaigned in close Senate races all over the South, in each case telling voters it was his last campaign and asking them for one more vote for Jeremiah Denton of Alabama or Mack Mattingly of Georgia or Henson Moore of Louisiana. The voters ignored him and handed the Senate back to the Democrats.
But Mr. Bush had enjoyed such an extraordinarily giddy ride at the top of the heap that he apparently believed those poll numbers. For more than 18 months everything went better for him than his own script writers could have imagined. His approval ratings were at record highs, even higher than those for the icon Reagan.
But that was before the reversal on taxes and a series of both policy and public relations blunders proved just how shallow and meaningless approval ratings can be. And it was before the notion spread through the land that hard economic times have arrived or are coming very soon.
The result now is a picture of a president flailing about trying to recapture the political momentum with rhetoric when the campaign is being driven by real issues like taxes and jobs.
None of this means that Mr. Bush will not be a formidable candidate for re-election in 1992. Any president has enough control of the national agenda to make himself difficult to defeat. But the picture of George Bush racing around the country to no purpose isn't helpful. He might better have stayed in the White House.