President stakes campaign on the 'trust' issue ON POLITICS

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

August 18, 1992|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover | Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover,Staff Writers

HOUSTON -- President Bush, in his quest for the issue that can win for him over Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton, has seized on "trust." He wants the voters to choose on the basis of which of them can be most trusted with the country's future in a still-perilous world.

In this regard, he hopes that Clinton's extremely limited foreign-policy experience as governor of Arkansas, compared with his own track record in foreign affairs culminating in his past four years in the Oval Office, will carry the day. But Bush has a "trust" problem of his own with voters, illustrated by the public and press suspicions of political motivations in the report that as the Republican National Convention opened here he was planning to lead a military confrontation with Iraq.

The president went before television cameras Sunday night expressing anger at the suggestion that he would "pick a fight" with Saddam Hussein for domestic political purposes to lift his flagging re-election campaign with a grandstand move. He seemed pained that such an allegation would ever be raised, but there are reasons involving other presidential candidates, and Bush himself, that such suspicions occur.

During the Vietnam War, Democrats and Republicans in turn took foreign-policy initiatives in presidential campaigns that smacked of domestic politics. In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered a bombing halt near the close of Hubert Humphrey's campaign, but Humphrey fell short. In 1972, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger proclaimed in the waning days of President Richard M. Nixon's re-election campaign that "peace is at hand," though it turned out it wasn't.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan's campaign manager was so worried that President Jimmy Carter would spring an "October Surprise" by bringing about the release of American hostages held in Iran that he set up a watch around military bases to spot telltale shipments of supplies to Iran that he figured would be part of a deal. And Congress is still investigating suspicions of a different 1980 "October Surprise" that the Reagan campaign made its own deal to have the hostages held until after the election to deprive Carter of a political windfall.

In 1983, after 241 Americans had been killed in the car-bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, allegations of political motivation were again triggered by the Reagan administration's

invasion of Grenada under suspicious circumstances only two days later. So there is plenty of precedent for voters to look for the hand of domestic politics in the deployment of military forces, especially in election years.

When Bush launched operation Desert Storm in early 1991, he was still riding high with an approval rating of 64 percent at home. So that action did not particularly arouse suspicions of politics-playing, except among some Democrats who pointed out his failure to cope with the nation's stagnant economy.

But Bush nevertheless has had a serious "trust" problem with the voters as a result of his penchant for categorical and unyielding pledges that he has then broken in his first term. The most prominent and damaging obviously was his 1988 nomination acceptance speech promise of "Read my lips: No new taxes," which he proceeded to break in the subsequent budget compromise deal with Congress. Probably no other single statement has undermined Bush's credibility as much as that one.

While he did deliver on another bold, tough-guy contention, his warning in 1991 that Saddam's invasion of Kuwait "will not stand," his failure to oust Saddam has since then eroded the force of that declaration.

The president trotted out the same in-your-face rhetoric earlier this year in telling Congress to support his economic recovery program or else. "Let me tell you right from the start and right from the heart," he said in his State of the Union address, "I know we're in hard times. But I know something else: this will not stand." He set a deadline for Congress to act, warning it would have to answer to him if it didn't. It didn't, and he did nothing, looking weaker than ever.

Clinton, asked about the suspicions of political motivation in the reported plan to hit Iraq again, said "we know of no example where a commander-in-chief has used or would use the awesome power of military power for political purposes." So much for Bill Clinton the historian, but Bill Clinton the politician obviously knows his best course in this instance is to let others turn the "trust" issue back on Bush.

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There are always dozens of subplots at national conventions, and one here involves jockeying for position among Republicans intending to run for president in 1996. The early winner is probably Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who managed to get tonight's coveted keynote speech.

But the list of players also includes Vice President Dan Quayle, as well as Housing Secretary Jack F. Kemp, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, retiring Secretary of State James A. Baker III and a host of others with thoughts-while-shaving of the White House. And the intriguing speculation is on which candidates other than Mr. Quayle have the most at stake in President Bush's success or failure Nov. 3.

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