Persian Gulf war brings pause to politics as usual On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

February 14, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington -- ONE OF THE by-products of the war in the Persian Gulf is that President Bush is avoiding a whole series of controversies on both domestic and international issues that ordinarily would be politically damaging.

The most obvious, of course, is the crisis in the Baltic republics and the Soviet Union. Under ordinary circumstances, the president could expect far more pressure than has been brought to bear so far to identify the United States more clearly with the Lithuanians than he has done. But Bush is essentially being given a pass on this one right now because of the tacit recognition that the concern with the Baltics must be balanced against concerns over the Soviet Union's role in the Persian Gulf.

The Soviet-Baltics issue is by no means the only one on which the president is getting the benefit of the doubt right now.

Item: The Chinese sentence two intellectuals to 13 years in prison for their ostensible roles in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in the spring of 1989. The harshness of the punishment clearly demonstrates that the Chinese leaders are as brutally repressive as they ever have been. This is the Chinese leadership to which President Bush kowtowed so cravenly by sending his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, on a secret mission to Beijing a month after the Tiananmen slaughter.

In other times, Bush would be under intense pressure to square the Chinese behavior with his suggestions at the time that his special relationship with the Chinese should be preserved because it might mean the United States could be a restraining influence on them. It is a valid question, but not one that political critics dare pursue when they face the danger of being accused of undermining the president in wartime.

Item: The United States is experiencing the most serious economic recession since 1982, and the Bush administration is at a loss for any serious attempt to deal with it -- other than jawboning the Federal Reserve Board on interest rates and issuing optimistic but flimsily supported projections of a higher growth rate next year.

In this case, some Democrats in Congress have felt free to be mildly critical. Thus, for example, when Michael Boskin, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, offers such sunny forecasts, he is reminded that a year ago the administration was predicting there would be no recession at all. But the Democrats are far more restrained than they would be if they were not operating in a political climate in which any criticism is quickly translated into an attempt to undercut support for the war.

Item: The president submits a federal budget that is largely blue smoke and mirrors, based principally on assumptions that are unrealistic and failing to deliver a valid picture of the outlook for the federal deficit. But, again, the complaints that might come both from Democrats and the right wing of the Republican Party are muted. In wartime, any president gets a free ride, at least for a time.

There is also a clear benefit for the president in the fact that the war has delayed the start of the 1992 presidential campaign. At this point in recent cycles, opposition presidential candidates have been out in the field for months testing their rhetoric against the incumbent, with the result that the approval ratings of the president -- most obviously Jimmy Carter in 1979 but even Ronald Reagan in 1983 -- have declined sharply. This time, however, the Democrats who are planning to seek their party's nomination recognize that there is no market for politics when tens of thousands of American men and women are in peril in Saudi Arabia.

The preoccupation with the war is not only a political boon to the president, of course. Under other circumstances, the Senate Ethics Committee's inquiry into the conduct of the Keating Five in the savings and loan scandal would have been a front-page, lead-the-television-news story for weeks. But both the press and the political community seem incapable of handling more than ++ one major story and chewing gum at the same time. So, except in their home states, the Keating Five story is buried on the inside pages.

No one would suggest that President Bush started the war to divert attention from other issues. And no one who understands American politics believes he will be able to escape accountability on all of these matters eventually. But, for the moment, one of the unintended consequences of the war in the gulf is a moratorium on politics as usual.

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