GOP: Looking for a Bounceback

July 23, 1992

George Bush's finely honed sense of loyalty and duty, a character trait traceable to his schoolboy days in chapel, figures large in crucial political decisions as he confronts a surging Clinton-Gore team. Common wisdom says he will bring in Secretary of State James Baker to run his campaign, citing just these values to overcome Mr. Baker's reluctance. And he will keep Dan Quayle on his ticket, despite popular doubts about his competence, for these very same reasons.

If this is right, it will in no way represent a triumph of sentiment over the depressing realities that beset the president's re-election effort. Mr. Bush has said he will do whatever is necessary to win a second term in the White House, and we believe him. Bringing in Mr. Baker to impose coherence, not only on his advisers but on himself, seems to be imperative. Keeping Mr. Quayle will be a mistake in terms of the nation's welfare. But to jettison his vice president would open Mr. Bush to charges of personal betrayal, something that would make him flinch and anger party conservatives.

If the decision were Mr. Baker's, he probably would get rid of Mr. Quayle in a trice. He never approved of the Quayle selection in the first place. But Mr. Baker has always known the president is boss, and he is unlikely to do anything to jeopardize his own political future -- a future in which a 1996 bid for the White House cannot be excluded.

Four years ago, the secretary of state managed a Bush campaign notorious for its Willie Horton ads, its rumor-mongering about Mike Dukakis' non-existent mental health problems and its flag-waving lack of content (and mandate). So diplomatic niceties do not figure in Mr. Baker's activities on the home front. He will not be affronted by a campaign that promises to be one of the dirtiest on record.

Appalled by the "bounce" Bill Clinton and Al Gore got from the Democratic National Convention in New York last week (they now lead in the polls by about 24 percent) the president's current handlers have opened fire with a post-Labor Day intensity. Mr. Clinton is already getting heat for avoiding military service during the Vietnam War. Mr. Gore was described by the White House spokesman as "Mr. Sellout" for environmental views that allegedly ignore the needs of the U.S. economy. But unlike the situation in 1988, the Democrats are hitting back and counter-punching.

This is the situation Mr. Baker will face if and when he leaves Foggy Bottom for titular or de facto leadership of the GOP campaign. You can be sure he is privately advising Mr. Bush, as he has been doing since his old friend first sought the White House in 1980. While the GOP's huge problems can hardly be approached, let alone surmounted, even by a tactician of Mr. Baker's towering reputation, his return to the political wars seems essential if Republicans are to get the bounceback they need to prevent a Democratic runaway.

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