Bush's poverty of ideas produces recycled oldies ON POLITICS

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

April 17, 1992|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- President Bush has come up with something entirely different in political campaigning. Rather than making news, he is making olds.

In Michigan the other day he announced the "Job Training 2000 Act" to provide training for young people,the identical program he had announed back in January. A couple of days earlier he announced he would take steps to put the brakes on political spending by unions, which he also had announced last month. In each case, there were a few added details to give the whole thing a little gloss.

The clear intention was to give the impression to election-year television audiences that the president was coming up with new ideas and acting vigorously to carry them out. Who said George Bush doesn't have a domestic program? There it is, right there on Page One. In the case of the olds on the union spending, the White House even leaked the story in advance and managed to get it treated as news.

There is, of course, nothing to prevent the White House from playing such games. If the president wants to announce every day that he favors job training programs, he's entitled to do so. Politicians on the campaign trail, including presidents, always develop what becomes known as "the set speech," which they deliver on most occasions. When they intend to advance something new, their flacks tell reporters there is a "major speech" in the works, which means something that might have a nugget not fully exposed in the past.

But the technique Bush is using now is dizzy politics because it exposes the poverty of the White House's domestic program. The cupboard is so bare of new ideas that the president has to recycle the old ones. What are all those people on the Domestic Council staff doing, anyway?

The perception that Bush is lacking ideas for dealing with domestic problems is particularly damaging right now. Opinion polls show much of the criticism directed toward the president is based on the belief he has spent too much time on foreign policy and not enough on taking care of "people like me" who are worried about their jobs, health care and education.

None of this should come as a great surprise. The story of the Bush campaign this year has been one of floundering for an approach and failing to find one. The market for the media events that were so successful in 1988 has dropped radically as concern over real issues has mounted. The president did not turn around negative perceptions in New Hampshire by campaigning with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Nor did he captivate the religious right by firing the director of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Indeed, it is fair to say that Bush has improved his position only to the extent that the Democrats have been engaged in their usual self-destructive practices by appearing to confer their nomination on a candidate whose negatives are also extremely high. If the Republicans didn't have Bill Clinton to be smug about, they would have good reason to panic, with disapproval of Bush's performance at 55 percent in the latest poll.

None of this vacuity should be seen as a departure from the norm. In that 1988 campaign against Michael S. Dukakis, candidate Bush took a firm position on only one issue -- his promise not to raise taxes. Otherwise, his initiatives largely took the form of declarations that he wanted to be "the education president" without specifying any commitment to the particular steps that would earn him such a designation.

More to the point, candidate Bush got away with it. The campaign turned not on whether he had any ideas but instead on whether Dukakis lacked patriotism and the sense to keep Willie Horton behind bars. But the use of "values" worked. And now that there are signs the recession may be easing, it is understandable if White House strategists expect similar issues to put Bill Clinton on the defensive.

They may be right. The one difference, however, is that President Bush now has a record of his own on which he must run. And part of that record has been a failure to deal with domestic concerns. He is not likely to change that picture by trying to make news out of olds.

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