INDEPENDENCE, Mo. -- Here in the hometown of Harry S. Truman, the claim of President Bush to be the Give-'em-Hell Harry of the 1992 campaign is a sure-fire laugh-getter. Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton had the home folks chuckling at the mere mention of it as he marked the traditional start of the fall campaign with a Labor Day rally.
It's not so much that Missourians dismiss out of hand the possibility that Bush may emulate Truman as another underdog incumbent who upsets the polls, as their native son dispatched Thomas E. Dewey in 1948. Folks in the Show-Me State have a longtime reputation for waiting until the facts are in.
Rather, it's that in style and temperament Bush is about as much like Truman as Barbara Bush is like Hillary Clinton. In 1948, it wasn't hard for Truman to sell himself as the battling champion of the little guy because in appearance, background and tastes he was the little guy himself. In 1992 Bush, for all his stridency now that he is in what he calls his "campaign mode," remains the proper Yankee aristocrat from the better part of town.
Clinton played on that image as he spoke to a rain-drenched crowd before a Truman statue on the steps of the Jackson County Courthouse built by Truman as a local official. He painted the president as a man more interested in maintaining low taxes for his rich friends than in giving a hand to the middle class to whom Truman was devoted. "Harry Truman did not wake up every morning worrying about how to lower taxes one more time on millionaires," he said.
Clinton reminded the Independence audience that "George Bush cast his first vote against Harry Truman," then spent "four years fighting against everything Harry Truman fought for." Clinton said Bush, on moving into the Oval Office, removed the famous sign that graced Truman's desk: "The Buck Stops Here!" In fact, he went on, "the buck doesn't stop with George Bush; it doesn't even slow down."
Nevertheless, Bush is not letting up in the least in his attempt to appropriate Harry Truman as the inspiration for his comeback campaign, now trailing Clinton in the latest NBC News poll by 49 percent to 40 percent. Even as Clinton was telling the Missourians here that he intended to give Bush a strong dose of Truman give-'em-hell medicine in the remaining eight weeks of the campaign, Bush was in Michigan and Wisconsin continuing to invoke Truman as his model.
Like Truman in 1948, Bush is attempting to rally voter support by running against a "do-nothing Congress" controlled by the opposition party, calling it instead the "gridlocked Congress." But Bush so far has been nowhere near as defiant in taking on Congress.
When Truman ran for a term in his own right 44 years ago, he first called the Republican-controlled Congress back for a special session, threw a lengthy agenda of legislative demands at it, then pounded the Republicans when they rejected those demands.
Bush by comparison early in the year submitted an economic recovery package with a 100-day deadline, warning that all hell would break loose if the Democratic-controlled Congress didn't pass it promptly. When the Democratic leadership in effect ignored him, nothing happened. Bush spent much of the time thereafter simply complaining, not going to the attack until just before the Republican National Convention in Houston that renominated him.
While Clinton and Bush wrestle between themselves over which of them deserves to wear the Truman mantle in this campaign, the economy continues to be the issue that dominates voter concern. And for all the surface similarities between the uphill fight that Truman faced in 1948 and Bush is encountering now, one factor is strikingly different.
In 1948, while Truman struggled against attacks on "the mess in Washington" resulting from misconduct of some of his political cronies, the economy was in very good shape.
Had Ronald Reagan's famous question of the 1980 campaign been asked then -- "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" -- the answer would have been a resounding "Yes." Bush this year is in no position to ask that question.