The Malaise Of 1992

RICHARD REEVES

August 18, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

Houston. -- Evening in America? It sure looks that way from here.

The shadows are so deep you can hardly see President Bush anymore. His stature is so low that he has, or he would have us believe he has, appointed James Baker as regent of the republic. He must be mortified. To mobilize his own party he has to pretend that his wife is the candidate and his friend Jim Baker will be running the White House, the campaign and, during lunch hour, the foreign policy of the United States.

What is left for the president to do? Prayer might be a good place to begin.

I was having dinner with a group of Republicans the other night, and one said that she thought it was terribly unfair for people to say that Mr. Bush does not care about what is going on in the country. No one else said a word until her husband said: ''I don't think that's the problem anymore. People think he just doesn't know what's going on.''

I'm not sure I do either, though I do think that the president's problems are now more psychological than political. He has, for the moment, lost the confidence of the American people. They don't, in fact, seem to care much about the substance of the man's presidency. They think he is tired and old -- a burned-out case.

It does not matter whether those perceptions are accurate. It only matters that millions of people believe them. This week is obviously a critical one in the life of George Bush. If at the end of the Republican National Convention he seems competitive with the young Democratic ticket of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, he will have full rights to the title Mr. Clinton claimed long ago in New Hampshire, ''Comeback Kid.''

Republicans, here and everywhere, tend to think that Mr. Bush is getting a bum rap. (The fact that not all Republicans agree is astounding considering their mainstream bent toward unquestioning party loyalty.) Policy Review, the magazine of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, tries to make that argument -- the argument that Mr. Bush is not running the country into the ground -- with a clever statistical compilation in its current issue.

Under the headline ''From Carter to Bush: Are You Better Off Than You Were 15 Years Ago?,'' the magazine compares national statistics of various kinds for 1979 and 1992. And the numbers come out better than liberals and other Democrats might imagine, beginning with this one, ''Number of Communist Countries -- 1977: 22 . . . 1992: 5.''

Then:

''Percentage of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) spent on federal domestic programs -- 1977: 15.1 . . . 1992: 16.9;

''Federal government outlays in 1991 dollars -- 1977: $873 billion . . . 1992: $1,431 billion;

''Federal government revenues in 1991 dollars -- 1977: $758 billion . . . 1992: $1,043 billion;

''Manufacturing as a percentage of GNP (Gross National Product) -- 1977: 23 . . . 1989: 23;

''Per capita income in 1991 dollars -- 1977: $12,493 . . . 1992: $15,023;

''Percentage of Americans owning their own home -- 1977: 64.8 . . . 1989 (latest figure): 64.''

The sky, such numbers indicate, has not fallen. But, more important, Americans seem to think it is falling, or will be soon. What the Heritage compilation indicates to me is that whatever the actual numbers, people see no chance that Bush and the Republicans can make them much better. And people are right. Conservative economists and politicians have done all they can. They are ideologically incapable of using Keynesian methods to stimulate the economy with tax cuts and increased government spending. And interest rates are already low enough to help trigger recovery -- if there was money to lend.

The conservatives have been crushed by the federal deficits produced by a naive belief in extreme supply-side economics. The statistics compiled by the Heritage Foundation are most negative -- anti-conservative in this case -- when one looks at deficit figures: ''Government deficit in 1991 dollars -- 1977: $114 billion . . . 1992: $388 billion; gross federal debt as a percentage of GDP -- 1977: 36.8 . . . 1992: 69.5; percentage of GDP spent on federal interest payments -- 1977: 1.6 . . . 1992: 3.4.''

Bush's problem, then, is not the 50 percent or 75 percent of economics that is real, in the sense of being quantifiable. His problem, and his party's, is the 50 percent or 25 percent of economics that is psychological. People and corporations spend and invest when they are confident of the future. Bush's problem is his countrymen's almost total lack of confidence in the future -- the factor that links 1977 and 1992 was once called ''malaise''-- and the lack of confidence in the incumbent president.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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