WASHINGTON — (TC WASHINGTON -- Although they are intended for an entirely different purpose, the television commercials President Bush's campaign is running these days define in the starkest terms the puny political arsenal at his disposal in seeking a second term.
The spots are remarkably free of specifics about Bush's accomplishments and intentions at a time when there is so much reason for genuine concern about the national direction.
One of the themes Bush is emphasizing, for example, is "family values." In a 60-second spot running now, the president says "we must strengthen the American family. The decline of the American family is hurting the soul of America, and we've got to change that."
Just how this "decline" is hurting the "soul" of the nation is, of course, not spelled out. But even if we grant the accuracy of that assessment of the national condition, it is reasonable to ask how this could have happened when the Republicans have been in control of the White House for 20 of the last 24 years. Did all that "decline" occur during those four years Democrat Jimmy Carter was the president? Does Bush offer some magical formula for the family that was not offered by Ronald Reagan? Or is all this some vague nonsense?
In the same commercial Bush observes that "we are a nation of laws" and adds: "We must increase respect for the law. We must pass strong legislation to help the fight against crime and to back our police officers and law enforcement officers out on the street. These are the kind of changes that America needs, and I'm convinced I can bring about that change."
Fair enough. But, again, what's been going on for 20 of the past 24 years. Was Richard Nixon soft on crime? Or Reagan? We seem to remember both of them mounting "wars" on crime and drugs.
Another Bush spot focuses on the federal deficit and reaffirms Bush's support for the balanced budget amendment. But he has been part and parcel of 12 years of Republican rule during which the deficit has reached these astronomical proportions. Why should anyone believe that now he can provide a magic remedy? Is the economy willing to wait until such an amendment is passed and ratified?
The real message in this first round of Bush commercials is the poverty of his record. His campaign managers had a free shot with $7 million in primary campaign money that has to be spent before the nominating convention opening in Houston in less than two weeks. But the best they can do is a recycling of tired political rhetoric that says nothing about what the president would do differently if re-elected. The answer to an economy that seems to be slipping into another period of stagnation and perhaps decline doesn't lie in endorsing family values or supporting the police, noble as those goals might be.
The weakness of the approach is made all the more striking by the latest CNN-Gallup Poll which shows Democratic Bill Clinton's lead over the president at 57 percent to 32 percent and Bush's approval rating down to 29 percent, the level Carter reached in June of 1980 before losing to Ronald Reagan. In short, Bush is in desperate straits but can produce nothing more effective in a totally controlled message to make his case.
There is no mystery about the political theory behind the commercials. By flaunting his commitment to family values and opposition to crime, Bush is hoping voters will draw the inference that this is where they can find the difference between the Republican incumbent and Democrat Bill Clinton. But is anyone going to buy the argument that the election is about family values when the unemployment rate is 7.8 percent and the growth rate only 1.4 percent?
The fact that Bush is running some banal and probably ineffectual commercials early in August doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the outcome of the election Nov. 3. There are too many things that can happen.
But the quality of the commercials and, more to the point, their content do teach a fundamental lesson about Bush's assets in this campaign and that lesson is that the cupboard is bare. If he is to be re-elected, it will be on the strength of the doubts he can raise about Bill Clinton.