Bush's economic plan contains nothing new ON POLITICS

Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

September 14, 1992|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

DETROIT -- President Bush, in emphasizing private ove public investment in the latest packaging of his economic recovery proposals before the Economic Club of Detroit, was clearly preaching to the choir. Still, the high-powered Michigan businessmen, including major auto manufacturing tycoons, responded rather mildly to the sermon. They had heard it several times before, though in dribs and drabs over the last year.

That, in fact, was the problem, as a senior administration official (name withheld under White House rules) acknowledged in a briefing here before the speech. Its purpose, he said candidly, was "to try to launch" what is now called the president's "Agenda for American Renewal," a 29-page brochure that the official described as "basically a conceptual document that seeks to integrate the different proposals that we have."

Bush himself noted that "over the past weeks I have been discussing certain elements of my economic agenda" and that "the document that I'm releasing today shows how the pieces all fit together."

When the senior official was asked whether there was anything new in the agenda, he replied that what was new was "the effort to try and integrate and relate it to an overall purpose," noting at the same time that "everything doesn't have to be new to be good or to work."

All this sounds like double talk, yet in terms of the presidential campaign, putting out a comprehensive statement is something that Bush badly needed. Democratic nominee Bill Clinton, who issued his own economic agenda weeks ago, has made political hay out of Bush's failure to do the same.

The timing naturally is suspect. But the senior official insisted that the agenda, which repeats the president's call for a modest income-tax rate cut and issues a new challenge to Congress to match proposed White House staff and salary cuts, was not "trying to propose magic bullets or try to throw out a set of new ideas 60 days before the election." Rather, he said, the proposals had been "packaged together in a way to try to help the American people understand them."

Given the fact that average voters don't pay the same attention to campaign speeches and proposals before Labor Day that political activists and reporters do, the "packaging" now makes some sense. But as an incumbent, the president in doing so inevitably invites the question of why now, and not four years ago?

Bush's answer is that he had to deal with "changing the world" first and was now embarked on "changing America," and that the two tasks are inseparable. And his background, he told the Economic Club, has "prepared me for the task of bringing our foreign policies and our domestic policies together; to turn our strength as a world power to our advantage as an economic power; to match the security we feel militarily with the economic security that we must build at home."

In the 29-page brochure, available by calling an 800 number, Bush conveniently justifies his inattention to the home front by suggesting that the country had been obliged to focus on foreign policy not simply in his own four years in the White House but ever since the American entry into World War II in 1941.

"In wartime," the brochure says, "the costs of government are always high. Domestic needs are not fully met. In times of conflict, a good nation tries to look after its poor, its sick, its elderly, its less privileged members, but not as completely as it should or would like to."

But his highest-profile proposal is a 1 percent cut in the income-tax rate that by some calculations shakes out to about $5 a week for the average taxpayer. And with the country mired in debt, a call for any tax cut now amounts to thumbing the presidential nose at the deficit.

Bush told the Economic Club that the large congressional turnover resulting from retirements and, he hopes, GOP gains in the House in November, will make his agenda achievable provided he gets a mandate for it from the voters. It is a long shot, but unless he projects a new and more conciliatory Congress, he will have a hard time making the case that proposals that what he calls "the gridlocked Congress" wouldn't buy the last four years will sell on Capitol Hill in a second Bush term.

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