Ask Jim

Sandy Grady

September 10, 1992|By Sandy Grady

EACH time an interviewer asks George Bush when and if he'll debate Bill Clinton, the president does a smiling tap dance that translates into two words:

Ask Jim.

So far there's been no brash follow-up: "Uh, pardon me, Mr. President, liberator of Panama and commander of Desert Storm, but who's making the decisions for the Bush campaign?"

The realistic answer:

Ask Jim.

Jim, of course, is James A. Baker III, the super-slick secretary of state now operating behind the White House curtains with cape, top hat and cane.

Conventional wisdom calls Mr. Baker the most artful magician in politics, a rep embellished by easy Reagan/Bush wins against dull, inept Democrats.

If Mr. Baker can pull this '92 rabbit out of a hat -- make the economy vanish, reinvent Mr. Bush, sell the country a Bush second term -- he'll retire the Harry Houdini Award.

There's no doubt Jim Baker is the closet Svengali pulling Mr. Bush's strings, just as he did four years ago. The trademarks of that 1988 Baker blitzkrieg are again evident: feel-good sound bites with hollow substance, trivialized issues, bludgeoning attacks.

The Baker Effect -- forget reality, we're playing to win -- is already transforming the president.

Shamelessly, Mr. Bush portrays himself as a reincarnated Harry Truman, although Truman's daughter, Margaret, and other associates say Harry would treat Mr. Bush's pose with unprintable contempt.

Mr. Bush sets up as straw men the nation's trial lawyers -- a disliked species but hardly villains of America's economic gloom.

He takes sly shots at Bill Clinton's draft record, a vulnerable bulls-eye, although Dan Quayle's Vietnam-era behavior wasn't a Profile in Courage. He repeats the canard that Mr. Clinton raised Arkansas taxes "128 times" although he knows it's false.

Mr. Bush's convention promise to cut taxes? No explanation of how it would be done. But he flies Air Force One as Santa Claus, tossing out billions in campaign goodies.

Is this '88 all over again? Well, sort of. Thanks in part to Mr. Baker's puppeteering, Mr. Bush narrowed his opponent's lead in this week's ABC-Washington Post poll from 20 to 12 points.

Never mind that Mr. Baker's hypnotic mastery of campaigner Bush underscores criticism of Mr. Bush as a Jell-O man without vision or center.

"If Baker is the great poobah and savior, it makes Bush look weak, doesn't it?" ex-Reagan political adviser Lyn Nofziger told the New York Times.

As Mr. Bush's Mandrake, though, Mr. Baker has one crucial stroke of magic to perform. Can he make the '92 presidential debates disappear?

Even for Mr. Baker's sleight-of-hand, that may be tough. A bipartisan commission scheduled three Bush-Clinton events, starting Sept. 22 at Michigan State. There would be a single moderator, opening up one-on-one spontaneity.

Mr. Clinton's willing. But the Bush campaign -- meaning Mr. Baker -- balked.

The president's handler is a master bait-and-switcher at juggling these debates to his advantage -- but not to the public's best interests. He undressed Mike Dukakis' negotiators in '88. Cynics say Mr. Clinton's staff is far less terrified about debating Mr. Bush than haggling with Mr. Baker.

Let's look inside the Great Magician's head and fantasize the Baker-Baker dialogue:

"I know what happens when a challenger gets on TV, side-by-side, with a president. People say, hey, he looks presidential. I saw it happen with Carter against Ford and Reagan against Carter."

"But we'd look chicken if we duck. Clinton and the liberal media would slam us as cowardly. So I've gotta limit the exposure -- one debate, maybe a second one if we look bad. Try to emphasize foreign policy. My guy sure as hell doesn't want to moan about the economy for 90 minutes."

"Single moderator, that's death. Clinton's a non-stop jabberer. He showed in the primaries he's got a mean streak. I don't want Clinton jawing at my guy about the economy all night."

"I'll angle for a three-person panel like "Meet the Press." My guy loves that. The reporters will show off with fluff questions, and George can memorize his sound bites. Maybe we'll spin it into a draw."

"I've gotta keep Clinton's amateurs rattled. I'll give 'em the silent treatment a couple of weeks. That cuts the time they can prepare their guy. I want a secret meeting. I'll listen politely, then say, 'OK, here's the deal. One debate. A panel of questioners. Take it or leave it.' And I'll walk out.' "

"Oh, maybe we'll bicker over a date. Or a second debate if we need to recoup. They'll do it my way. Lord knows, if I'm going to pull this turkey out, my guy needs every edge."

It's a bet that Mr. Baker will muscle the debate format to George Bush's advantage. The artful magician may even contrive a distract-and-attack campaign that wins Mr. Bush a second term.

What would the re-elected president do after Jan. 20, 1993?

Ask Jim.

Sandy Grady is the Washington political correspondent for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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