WASHINGTON -- The spectacle of "the White House in disarray" has become such a hardy perennial it has become ritualized. All the elements of the ritual are on display in President Bush's summer of discontent.
The president, of course, is obliged to act as if nothing untoward is going on, as Bush has been trying so manfully to do while the polling data defining his problems mount. President Jimmy Carter didn't follow that course in 1979, choosing instead to convene what became known as the "malaise summit" at Camp David, which was one of the reasons he was on his way out a year later.
By contrast, Bush has been insisting that what he calls "the political season" hasn't really started yet and when it does, things will be different. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, he insists that the White House is going about business as usual rather than responding to the fast start of Democratic nominee Bill Clinton and the polling data. As for the polls, he doesn't pay any attention to polls -- just like President Lyndon B. Johnson insisted he didn't in 1967 while carrying the figures around in his inside pocket.
Meanwhile, the other actors -- in this case, Bush's fellow Republicans -- play out their parts, first wringing their hands privately, then with increasing candor publicly.
The characteristics of genuine disarray include the following:
* The search for scapegoats. The president himself can never be blamed, so somebody else has to be nailed. In this case, the designated scapegoats are, depending on your point of view: White House chief of staff Samuel Skinner, accused of failing to run the operation by the high standards of John Sununu, or Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady and Budget Director Richard Darman, jointly blamed for an economic policy that in turn is to blame for the disarray in the first place.
The bleak history of such approaches is ignored. No one seems to remember now, for example, that Carter followed his Camp David summit by firing several members of his Cabinet -- to absolutely no avail. Voters know the difference between
principals and staff members.
* The search for the quick fix. In this case, there are two magical solutions to the president's political problems. The first is to bring Secretary of State James A. Baker III back to the White House to make everything all better not only there but in the campaign as well. This is one the president apparently is ready to try.
The other is to throw Vice President Dan Quayle over the side in the hope of convincing the voters that choosing somebody new to preside over the Senate will solve everything. Quayle's most recent gaffes obviously have given this one a higher priority, but the notion that the vice president can be blamed for Bush's weakness in the polls doesn't square with reality or the polling data.
* Monday-morning quarterbacking. While insisting that nothing is wrong that can't be fixed with the right hirings and firings, Republican conservatives are tracing the whole problem to Bush's decision in 1990 to break his "read my lips" promise and raise taxes after all. That decision didn't seem so fateful in the wake of Desert Storm, but that was 15 months -- and 40 percent in Bush's approval ratings -- ago.
In all of this, the ritual requires that the president be exempted from any responsibility. The fact that he was the one who chose not only Quayle but Skinner, Darman and Brady is ignored. The fact that he is the one who has not been able to muster even a show of genuine interest in domestic concerns is overlooked. The mantra of any White House in disarray is that "once our message gets out," the president's problems will be over. It is impossible to abide the thought that the crisis is based on some fundamental weakness in the president himself.
The one comfort for the White House right now may be the recognition that "disarray" doesn't last forever -- and can vanish overnight if the president's polling figures improve or those of Bill Clinton begin to slide. But unless and until that happens, the Republicans are playing out a familiar political scenario.