WASHINGTON — Washington. -- No one can doubt the sincerity of President Bush's confession last week that he's sorry he agreed to raise taxes as part of the 1990 budget deal.
Second only to the sluggish economy, Mr. Bush's breach of faith on his 1988 campaign pledge of "no new taxes" has been the greatest source of what he called the "political grief" he's been getting in this expectedly tough re-election year.
"If I had that to do all over, I wouldn't do it," he told one of several interviewers who struck the same sensitive chord by asking if he had regrets. "Look at all the flak it's taking."
But once the admission was made, even some advisers who had been urging the president to acknowledge his error in compromising with the "tax and spend" Democrats feared he may have done himself more harm than good.
The American people seem to be saying this year they are ready for unrosy reality from politicians. But they are also yearning for leadership, courage and maybe a good, old-fashioned hero or two.
Where is the leadership in a president who decides he has made a mistake because he has been too often criticized?
Where is the courage in a president who continues to insist the tax increase itself was not hurtful to the economy and that it won limits on spending many say have been helpful, but who won't stand by his convictions?
Where is the hero who promises to bring to the crusade for economic growth and jobs the same valor and firm sense of purpose that carried him past critics and naysayers to victory in the Persian Gulf war?
At a time when one in three Republican voters -- not to mention the Democrats -- say they are angry with Mr. Bush because he hasn't done enough about the sorry state of the economy, the president says he regrets the one major, courageous step he did take.
"I give him A for content, but C for execution," said Mitchell E. Daniels, White House political director under President Reagan.
Mr. Daniels said voters would be sympathetic to Mr. Bush's complaint that he feels betrayed by a Democratic Congress that wants to raise taxes again. "But I wish he had stopped there and not added all that stuff about the political flak," he added.
What will come next as the president tries to quiet right-wingers riled by conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan's charges that Mr. Bush has sold them out? An admission that the Democrats also tricked him on civil rights and that the legislation he signed is really a quota bill as Mr. Buchanan says?
Part of the problem is the panicked and chaotic state of the Bush campaign, which is moving so fast nobody inside seems to be paying attention to what the president is saying -- much less planning it carefully in advance.
Although the notion of repudiating the 1990 tax increase had been discussed by his campaign advisers for some weeks, there was no decision that this was the time to do it.
Mr. Bush's comments just sort of popped out in response to questions, and his thinking seemed to evolve over a series of three closely-timed interviews.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said he missed the first one and didn't recognize the impact of the president's comments during the second interview. After the third interview, Bush aides decided to capitalize on his about-face and distributed transcripts of the exchanges to the rest of the press corps.
On Thursday, however, the president appeared to be mocking himself.
"Life means nothing without fidelity to principles," Mr. Bush said to the Homebuilders Association of Columbia, S.C., on the day after Democratic leaders and some newspaper editorial writers accused him of a shameless flip-flop-flip. "So often, politicians do the easy things, the popular things, but it is the tough things that tell you something about character and honor and leadership."
Reading boiler-plate copy that had been written days in advance, Mr. Bush was trying to take credit for having the courage to veto popular legislation -- though he never specified what bills he had vetoed because they were popular, aides said.
But it was an awkward time for Mr. Bush to be extolling the virtues of sticking by your guns.
"We've definitely got some tidying up to do," said head White House speech writer Tony Snow. "Obviously, we did not mean to embarrass ourselves."
Worse for Mr. Bush than his campaign chaos, though, is that he was right about the importance of standing up for something.
In a recent poll of Marylanders conducted for The Sun, respondents were asked what one thing they would say to politicians. The largest number, 16 percent, said they would deliver a message about political ethics, such as, "Tell the truth to the people."
The truth is that the 1990 tax increase didn't affect Americans much. Mr. Bush himself noted it was mostly on gasoline, which went down in price after the Persian Gulf War. Mr. Reagan's income tax "simplification bill" of 1986 was far more costly to many middle-income families, and that wasn't even considered a tax increase.
Rather than regretting that he had taken so much heat for his attempt to boost the nation out of recession quicker, Mr. Bush might more properly be kicking himself in public for making the no-new-tax pledge in the first place.
Then, he could go on to claim credit for keeping interest rates low and preventing the economic downturn from going deeper. And he could pledge himself to continue to work for measures that will restrain spending and reduce the deficit, thereby producing more lasting benefit to the economy than any of the short-term tax breaks he has included in his economic growth package.
Instead, he seems have to have given up on anything but pointing fingers at a Congress no less terrified by the political consequences of tough choices.
Of course, those fingers are also crossed. Mr. Bush's fervent hope is that the economy will recover on its own, and all this unpleasantness will soon be behind him.