HOUSTON -- Seldom was a presidential nominee's acceptance speech awaited with more anticipation -- and, in some Republican quarters, anxiety -- than was President Bush's address winding up the GOP National Convention here. While one of his better rhetorical efforts, the jury is out on whether it will achieve its prime objective: convincing voters that he has a workable plan to right the nation's economy.
The president served up a pretty package containing what voters always like: a promise of tax cuts. But the chances are the promise was written in magician's ink, the kind that disappears from the page after a few moments. The notion that the Democratic ladies and gentlemen in what Bush called "the gridlock Democratic Congress" will agree to the "specific spending reductions that I consider appropriate" as his condition for the cuts is nonsense.
All through the first Bush term, the Democratic-controlled Congress has been at loggerheads with the president on spending cuts. The only way that would change would be election of a Republican-controlled Congress, or at least one more ideologically attuned to his views, similar to the one that rolled over on tax cuts for President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
Bush, citing an expected 150 members of Congress not returning next year for one reason or another, said he will sit down with their successors and give them a good talking-to. Then, presumably, they will go along with his scheme for new cuts in taxes and spending. Unless these newcomers are overwhelmingly Republican, however, it's more likely they will be thinking about using any substantial spending cuts to meet domestic needs neglected in the Reagan-Bush years.
The Bush tax-cut gambit comes down politically to another vehicle for making the Democratic-controlled Congress the villain in the whole debate over the economy. Going into his speech, the president was saying that the "gridlock Congress" was at fault for his inability in the first term to get the nation's economic engine purring.
One obvious problem with Bush's conditional tax-cut promise is that he has a glaringly bad record in the promising business, as a result of his reneging on the prime promise of his acceptance speech four years ago. His categorical invitation to voters to "read my lips -- no new taxes" has turned out to be perhaps the single best argument against his re-election that the Democrats can raise.
Republican challenger Patrick Buchanan had a field day in the early primaries repeating the broken pledge and running commercials showing Bush making it at the New Orleans convention. Billboards rented by the Democrats here proclaimed it to delegates arriving daily at the Astrodome, and many of them called the promise the biggest albatross around the nominee's, and the party's, neck.
Bush the other night admitted that it was "a mistake to go along with the Democrats' tax increase" in the budget compromise of 1990. But then he argued, in effect, that in falling off the wagon only one time he was still more trustworthy on taxes than his Democratic opponent, Bill Clinton.
"Who do you trust in this election?" he asked. "The candidate who raised taxes one time and regrets it, or the other candidate who raised taxes and fees 128 times, and enjoyed it every time?" The president didn't bother to spell out what were the 128 tax increases that Clinton allegedly rejoiced over leveling as governor of Arkansas. The figure is as phony as a three-dollar bill.
Bush also pulled out of his hat a figure of $220 billion in new spending he said Clinton is proposing "along with the biggest tax increase in history, $150 billion" to finance such programs as "a government takeover of health care" and job training. Both figures are his own campaign's calculations in an old trick used by Democrats and Republicans alike for years to make the opposition look fiscally irresponsible.
All this makes clear that Bush's acceptance speech was not so much a formula for economic recovery as it was a blueprint for the political strategy of his campaign: to castigate a Congress controlled by the opposition party for past failures and future obstructionism, in the Harry Truman fashion of 1948.