The credibility gap Bush can't seem to close On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

April 29, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington -- FOR ALL his high standing in the polls, President Bush continues to fall prey to a political flaw that has gotten him into trouble in the past and can do so again. He is prone to making categorical promises that he cannot always keep, risking a credibility problem if repeated too often.

Voters are accustomed to politicians as candidates promising the moon, but they want a transformation when one becomes president. And they tend to bend over backwards to believe the individual they have elected, even when his record for candor or veracity leaves much to be desired. Witness Ronald Reagan and his campaign pledge to balance the federal budget.

Bush as the Republican nominee in 1988 was about as categorical as possible when he invited voters to "read my lips -- no new taxes." That was why, when he reneged on that pledge as president, he unlike the magical Reagan suffered politically, not only among voters but among fellow Republicans who climbed out on that limb with him.

Although he would argue otherwise, Bush was quite categorical as well when he invited Iraqis to get rid of Saddam Hussein, contributing to the ensuing bloodbath of rebelling Kurds and Shiites. He may not have explicitly promised to help them, but the implication was there that, after committing half a million Americans to liberating Kuwait from the man he called another Hitler, he would not stand idly by as the same man systematically slaughtered them.

Then, after saying categorically that he would not intervene in a civil war and plunge the United States into another Vietnam "quagmire," even to the extent of humanitarian aid, Bush was embarrassed by British and French initiatives into committing U.S. military forces in order to get in front of the refugee relief effort.

This deployment is taking place after another categorical Bush statement that virtually all American troops would be coming out of Iraq after a cease-fire agreement. But even as the U.S. military who waged the war are being withdrawn, others are being sent in. The deployment is without doubt justified, but because Bush is given to making flat promises that he can't always keep, he risks being seen increasingly as a man who uses words entirely too frivolously -- like a candidate, not a president.

Now, with Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney indicating that the United States "may well deploy additional forces" beyond the 7,000 American troops now in northern Iraq, Bush says that "they're going to stay there as long as it takes to make sure these refugees are being taken care of, and not a minute longer." And he says Saddam "isn't dumb enough" to risk having to take on American forces again, although he has sent Iraqi "police" to intimidate Kurds coming into the refugee encampments. But Bush was sure, too, and said so, that Saddam wouldn't risk war back in January if he knew what he was up against.

Promising is one of the oldest staples in politics -- by candidates. Back in the 1976 presidential campaign, Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter pitched for voter support largely on the promise that "I'll never lie to you." He invited voters, if they ever caught him saying anything less than the unvarnished truth, to not vote for him.

There were, to be sure, other factors in his surprise nomination and narrow victory over incumbent President Gerald Ford -- Watergate and the Nixon pardon prominently among them. But Carter's success in projecting himself as a different kind of politician -- a politician swearing off lying to voters and seeming to mean it -- certainly contributed to the outcome, in a year when trust in politicians after Watergate had hit rock bottom.

Notably, it was not a reneging on this promise that caused Carter's defeat for reelection four years later, although he did on occasion stray from the straight and narrow on things he said and did in his very bumpy White House tenure. Rather, it was the widespread perception that honesty and good intentions were not an adequate substitute for experience and leadership ability, in which voters found him wanting.

Making explicit promises and then breaking them is not likely, by itself, to be Bush's political undoing as long as he continues to get high marks for leadership, and the Democrats fail to offer a strong alternative. But if the recession deepens and other things sour on Bush, his weakness for the categorical but unfulfilled commitment could wear thin with the voters.

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