WASHINGTON -- While President Bush campaigns for re-election as a strong military leader in the Eisenhower mold, the Senate's top Democrat suggested yesterday a comparison to a less popular Republican chief executive: Hoover.
"Not since Herbert Hoover occupied the White House has a president been so consistently wrong in his judgment of the economy," said Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, referring to the Republican who was president when the Great Depression began.
"For a full year and a half, the president and his top advisers misjudged the economy and misstated its condition."
Now that military competition is over with the Soviet Union, said Mr. Mitchell, "the greatest threat to U.S. security" is a "steady erosion" of the economy and a failure to invest in America's needs, from education to transportation and health.
The Senate Democratic leader called for a five-year defense cut of $100 billion -- double the reductions reportedly being sought by the White House -- that would be used to help end the recession and plan for the country's future.
Under his economic plan, which was short on details, Mr. Mitchell said he would use the defense savings for a one-time-only grant to state and local governments for spending in areas that would include education, public safety and health care.
Together with a middle-class tax cut, the Maine Democrat also called for a credit for first-time home buyers: a no-penalty use of IRAs for the purchase of a first home. Another proposal was a temporary investment tax credit he said would encourage businesses to make more capital investments.
The Senate leader indicated that while the plan would initially add to the current fiscal year's projected $362 billion deficit, the defense savings would pay for the proposals over five years.
Among defense cuts envisioned by Mr. Mitchell were a $20 billion savings by scrapping the B-2 bomber, a $15 billion reduction in "star wars" funding and a $15 billion to $20 billion savings by reducing the number of troops abroad.
As the recession continues to plague the nation, several other Democrats -- including Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland and Sen. Jim Sasser Tennessee -- have unveiled similar economic plans. The Maine senator said he expected all the plans to "coalesce" into one Democratic proposal.
Shifting defense savings to domestic spending would require changes in the 1990 budget accord, a change Democrats favor and Mr. Bush has indicated he could support.
Mr. Mitchell spent much of his address to the National Press Club pouring salt on Mr. Bush's economic wounds, with the dismal backdrop of layoffs, bankruptcies and cuts in local services.
"There's been no leadership from the president," charged Mr. Mitchell. "The outcome of 12 years of Republican trickle-down economic and tax policy is clear. . . . The American people know they've been trickled on long enough."
Mr. Mitchell had been on the receiving end of criticism Wednesday when President Bush made a campaign swing through recession-ravaged New Hampshire. Repeatedly calling attention to his leadership in the Persian Gulf war, the president chided the Senate Democratic leader, who had advocated economic sanctions to remove Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.
If Mr. Mitchell's advice had been taken, the president said, the Iraqi leader would be "sitting in the sand" in Saudi Arabia and Americans would be "paying $20 a gallon" for gasoline.
"The statement is of course false," Mr. Mitchell said yesterday. "But even more, Mr. Bush sounds like a panicky candidate in a losing campaign for president rather than a president confidently seeking re-election."
Mr. Mitchell said that the president has been against such Democratic proposals as tax cuts and reduced defense spending but that he now appears ready to embrace them. "Let's hope his prescription for the recovery is better than his diagnosis of the problem has been," the senator said.