Midterm crisis

Tom Wicker

November 23, 1990|By Tom Wicker

NEW YORK — PRESIDENT BUSH'S eight-day trip abroad was not planned, so far as is known, as an escape from the troubles that suddenly plague him at home. But he could hardly be blamed if he's enjoying a week of freedom from the nightly news and the daily headlines.

First, it was the budget fiasco and the perception of the president as unable either to make up his mind or bring his party along in whatever direction he was going. This after his campaign pledge never, never to raise taxes earned him a steep drop in the polls and the 1990 Doublespeak Award from the National Council of English Teachers.

Worse, Bush managed to do for the Democrats what they had been unable to do for themselves. Virtually singlehandedly he created the so-called "fairness issue" by his stubborn resistance to higher taxes on affluent Americans.

The president then took to the campaign trail, where he and the nation discovered that a number of Republican office-seekers no longer wanted his help or even his presence. Worse, on Election Day, the returns suggested that his influence on the voters ` even in Texas, one of his home states ` was smaller than his hat size.

Almost as soon as the election was over, the bubble of support he had won for mobilizing the Persian Gulf coalition burst into a storm of criticism. His decision to send more troops to provide an "offensive capacity" (which could have earned him another Doublespeak award, since he had said originally that U.S. forces were "purely defensive") woke Congress and the Democrats and even some Republicans to the prospect of an unwanted war.

Congress was particularly exercised because Bush and his secretary of state, James A. Baker, did some fast footwork around the question of "consulting" its members. Would they even do the constitutional thing and ask Congress to declare the war if they decided to start it? Bush responded by asking critics to tone it down, lest the country appear to be as divided as it actually is.

Then, on the eve of his departure for points east, Bush had to confess that he was "concerned that we're in a downturn" economically ` though he hastened to add, in one of those catchy phrases for which he is renowned, that he was "not a gloom-and-doom person." But a president who wants to be re-elected would rather be concerned about almost anything other than recession.

All in all, it's been a disastrous autumn for a president who sailed through the summer with an approval rating above 70 percent. It's hard to remember a president who suffered such an abrupt fall from such high standing, and that it happened to George Bush raises hard questions about him and his presidency.

Most immediately, will his decline be lasting? Clearly, it doesn't have to be; Bush is only at the halfway point of his term and has plenty of time and opportunity to move up again in public appreciation. And if he's right that real or threatened recession won't last more than six months ` not everyone shares that view ` the economy could be in good shape again by 1992.

On the other hand, most of Bush's political wounds were self-inflicted; witness the budget debacle and the abrupt escalation of defense into offense in the Middle East. Such perceived ineptitude has led to speculation in both parties and on Capitol Hill that Bush's political skills have deserted him, or never really existed; that his election was mostly the work of clever handlers; that his popularity derived from having had to make few tough decisions; and that an uninspired staff, particularly its abrasive chief, John Sununu, serves him poorly.

A suddenly floundering president, moreover, does not inspire the respect, even fear, that usually is a major weapon in the White House arsenal. This could have fatal effect in Congress, where Bush seems to have only halfhearted backing even among Republicans; and it's likely to bring Democratic presidential candidates out of the woodwork and into Iowa and New Hampshire.

The most serious question, however, is about the core of belief on which a president usually can rely for guidance when issues are complex and difficult. This president's waffling on the budget, his inability to explain his intentions in the Middle East, his managerial approach to an office that demands persuasiveness and vision ` what these may tell us about George Bush's personal center is not reassuring.

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