WASHINGTON -- The polls are coming thick and fast now, indicating President Bush's political free fall. But you don't have to look at the polls for confirmation. Just listen to what the president and various campaign spokesmen are saying.
First there is the cry for help that calls on the occupant of the most prestigious job in government short of the presidency itself to step down and take over command of the sinking ship. The secretary of state above all other Cabinet officials is supposed to remain above politics. Yet the wheels seem to be in motion to have James A. Baker III, who quit as secretary of the Treasury in 1988 to bail out his friend, surrender an even bigger job to do it again.
It appears to be an article of faith among Republicans that Baker can somehow wave a magic political wand and put Bush back in the lead. But Bush's problem is beyond campaign reorganization. What he needs is a vote-getting agenda for the future that is nowhere in sight.
Next there is the renewed second-guessing about the wisdom of Bush's having chosen Dan Quayle as his running mate four years ago and sticking with him now. But again it is not Quayle who is Bush's problem. Even if the president were to dump his hapless sidekick, Bush likely would only reinforce his own image -- so forcefully drawn by his reneging on his no-new-taxes pledge -- as a flip-flopper.
Finally, there is the bankruptcy of his campaign's early attack on the Democratic ticket. Quayle and campaign director Fred Malek have dusted off the old, all-purpose blast at Bill Clinton and Al Gore as a pair of liberal tax-and-spend Democrats. The charge comes after a Democratic convention in which the Clinton forces conspicuously moved their party from its old liberal New Deal approach with a public confession that simply spending more does not solve problems.
With absolutely no figures to back up their claim, Quayle and Malek charge that the Clinton economic agenda means higher taxes for the bulk of Americans. They say that this conclusion is inevitable when you figure all the things Clinton says he would do as president. But they don't even offer their own arithmetic to support their categorical charge.
They also in effect say Clinton is lying when he says he intends to raise the taxes only of Americans who make more than $200,000 a year -- those who profited most from the nearly 12 years of Reagan-Bush tax policies that hit the poor and middle class hard.
In a cute little gimmick, Quayle last week videotaped a question to Clinton that was presented to the Democratic presidential nominee in a Louisville, Ky., television studio during the Clinton-Gore bus tour. "Why is a tax increase the centerpiece of your economic growth agenda?" Quayle asked. "I know you'll say you're just going to tax the wealthy. Well, we've heard that before. When you Democrats start defining the wealthy, it's defined as anyone who has a job."
Clinton's proposed tax increase on the rich is not by any means, however, "the centerpiece" of his economic plan. And Quayle's allegation that the Democrats mean by wealthy "anyone who has a job" is a comic distortion about a candidate who repeatedly deplores the plight of the nation's working poor and says their burden must be lightened. While Clinton has downplayed his earlier call for tax cuts for the middle class, he has said they will not be called on to pay more taxes.
Nevertheless, the Bush campaign is pumping on the same player piano for the same old tune it has used to undercut the Democrats for as long as political memory runneth. And that tune, which also blames all manner of ills on an uncooperative Democratic Congress (which a second-term Bush would almost certainly face again), tells the voters nothing about how Bush intends to improve the economy in the next four years.
In the 1982 congressional elections in the wake of a recession, President Ronald Reagan called on voters to "stay the course." The slogan was a disaster, and the Republicans lost 26 House seats. So far, the Bush campaign is asking the same, without using those words. It's hard to see how, unless that message changes, Jim Baker alone is going to pull the GOP chestnuts out of the fire.