Bush chooses golf over mayors' meeting On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

June 18, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

San Diego -- PRESIDENT BUSH spent the weekend in southern California. He made some speeches and played a round of golf with Ronald Reagan. But -- to the surprise of absolutely no one -- he did not drop in at the 59th annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors here.

Democrats who might like to succeed him next year were no more attracted. The only presidential aspirant who showed up was former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, who is enough of a long shot to seize upon any forum. The conference seems to have become a political tar baby.

In purely political terms, there is no mystery in this reluctance of the candidates to be identified with the nation's largest cities, most of whose mayors were here. The agenda for these meetings is a real downer -- AIDS and homelessness, drugs and crime, inadequate child care and failing schools, rising welfare and decaying infrastructures. The corridor talk here is about the bankruptcy of Bridgeport, Conn., the state's most populous city.

Moreover, in most of the big cities of the South and industrial Northeast and Midwest, the people who are suffering from the failures of domestic programs are just the ones most voters and many politicians would like to ignore. They are disproportionately black or Hispanic, dependent on welfare programs, consumers of expensive social services. They are not the stuff of "it's morning in America" commercials.

But the short shrift given the mayors' conference is a symptom of a great divide that has opened in American society over 10 years of the Reagan-Bush administrations. These Republican presidents have discovered they can brush off the problems of these overwhelmingly Democratic cities without paying any political price. On the contrary, the evidence seems to suggest a majority of voters are equally unconcerned about the intractable problems of the American underclass.

Politically astute mayors recognize the realities. Mayor Ray Flynn of Boston, the incoming president of the conference, says that the cities need to focus more attention on the strengths of the cities. Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago says meetings like this one spend too much time on such vexing problems as AIDS and the homeless and not enough on those of the middle class in the cities.

"We never talk about the middle class," says Daley. "We need to focus more on education." The condition of the schools, he argues, has more influence than any other factor on keeping middle-class families within big cities like his own -- meaning those who provide the tax base.

It is understandable, however, that the city officials are inclined to devote most of their attention to the problems that confront them most immediately. When, for example, the census undercounts the population of Atlanta by more than 5 percent, Mayor Maynard Jackson finds himself looking at a $42 million-a-year reduction in federal money. The undercount, he says, is "a national scandal."

It always comes down to money and politics. More than half of the larger cities represented here have been obliged to raise their taxes in the last year, either because of the decline in the economy, growth in the number of people needing help, reductions in transfer payments from federal and state governments or a combination of the three.

But there is little political incentive for a national administration -- and particularly a Republican one -- to give a high priority to the problems of such constituencies as the homeless or welfare beneficiaries or drug users. Not when the attitude in the electorate these days is so hostile to social programs that are perceived as costly failures.

Some of the mayors -- Maynard Jackson is an example -- are convinced that their constituents in the inner cities can be mobilized into a potent political force. Some Democratic professionals argue that Michael Dukakis might have won the 1988 presidential election if he had been more successful in turning out those voters. And a few have talked themselves into the notion that George Bush's cavalier lack of attention to the inner cities can cost him at the polls next year.

But this is hardly the consensus of political pragmatists today. They seem to believe not only that the cities can be largely ignored but that there may be a debilitating price to pay for being identified with them. So no one was surprised when President Bush chose to play golf rather than meet with the mayors.

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