Bush sets sights on control of Congress ON POLITICS

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover

August 20, 1992|By Jack Germond and Jules Witcover

HOUSTON -- President Bush's strategy of emulating Harry Truman's successful 1948 campaign against an uncooperative Congress seems at first blush a foolhardy one.

With general agreement that the current legislative gridlock results from split responsibility -- the executive branch in Republican hands, the legislative in Democratic -- the obvious answer is control of both branches by one party, and the chances of the Republicans winning Congress seem next to nil.

The Democrats have such a numerical edge in the House that few Republicans even entertain the thought that they can take control there, and they are given the barest outside chance to recapture the Senate they last controlled for six years under Ronald Reagan. So if there is going to be one-party control of Washington next year, the odds are very strong that the party will be the Democratic.

Still, Bush told cheering delegates here on arrival for the GOP National Convention that he was going to "change Congress" in the course of duplicating Truman's upset victory over Thomas E. Dewey. Strictly speaking, he might not need a clear Republican majority to get more cooperation on the Hill. Reagan got his way in the House through a conservative ideological majority -- Republicans plus what were called boll-weevil Democrats from the South.

Control of Congress is not, however, what Bush is primarily after in his strategy of running against it. He needs to find a way to convince voters that he wasn't just sitting around twiddling his thumbs on the home front for the last four years, and that there was a good explanation for the paucity of his domestic accomplishments.

The obvious way to do that is to paint Congress as obstructionist at every turn. But it will be a difficult sell for a president who has used his veto 31 times in his first term and had it sustained every time, leaving him vulnerable to Democratic allegations of obstructionism himself.

In 1948, Truman dramatized his problem with what he called the "Republican do-nothing Congress" by calling it back into special session in late July to take up an eight-point program to control inflation. When Congress again balked, he took a whistle-stop tour of the country to hammer the Republicans.

The Bush campaign, according to some insiders, has been considering emulating Truman in that regard too, by thinking of calling Congress back into session once it adjourns in October to go home to campaign. But it is considered likely Congress may not quit on its own until mid-October, leaving Bush with very little time to pull off this variation of an "October Surprise." Also, such a move would be a very transparent political ploy that could backfire.

The task for Bush is to convince all those voters who are fed up with politics and want change this year that they are looking at the wrong target -- that they want real change, they should be looking to change the Democratic stranglehold on the legislative branch.

This is the thrust of a new TV commercial that the GOP's congressional election arm has showcased here at the national convention. It shows scenes of civil unrest and protest interspersed with mug shots of some of the Democrats' weakest candidates, including George McGovern, who was in Congress, and Michael Dukakis, who was not.

The voice-over says: "Since 1954 (the last time the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress) a lot has happened. When America wanted change we changed presidents. But for 38 years one thing hasn't changed: the Democrat Congress. For nearly 40 years the Democrats in Congress have made all the decisions raising our taxes, spending our money, and regulating our lives. To change America, change the Democrat Congress."

It is not precisely correct to say the Democrats alone have been responsible for all that has come out of Congress in the last 38 years. But Bush is able to say he has not had the numbers or the ideological support that Reagan had through most of his two terms, to enact a legislative agenda.

The Truman strategy of running against Congress does not address, however, Bush's central political problem -- saying persuasively what he would do if he got a more cooperative Congress. That remains his principal challenge as he moves from the convention to the hustings on which Harry Truman made a winning, comeback case to the American voters 44 years ago.

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