Bush's Sad September

September 28, 1992

If October is as bad as September for George Bush, the third day of November is going to mark the end of his political career. On almost every front, the president is on the defensive despite his doughty, thumbs-up demeanor on the campaign trail. Bill Clinton's people, in contrast, are cocky and almost condescending despite ample lessons from history that this is unwise.

What seems to be hurting the Republican incumbent the most is a persistent stream of bad news on the economy. Experts in the dismal science continue to insist that this recession is not as severe as the public considers it to be. For that reason, some of them still expect Mr. Bush to win a come-from-behind victory. But perceptions outrank reality when voters approach the ballot booth, and nothing is going right for the president.

Orders for durable goods are falling as car manufacturers reduce output and defense contractors continue big layoffs. Hopes for an increase in personal income -- the key feel-good factor in the populace -- were blown away by Hurricane Andrew. The growth rate in the second quarter of 1992 was only half what it was in the first.

So the president finds himself immobilized by an economy that has not turned around to his benefit. Important segments of the business community, especially in high-tech electronics, are defecting to Governor Clinton, lured by the prospect of assistance from a more activist government. By selling jet aircraft to Saudi Arabia and Taiwan and by giving export subsidies to wheat farmers the president is using the powers of incumbency, to be sure, but only for the purposes of local impact in key states and only at the cost of opening himself to taunts about pork-barrel tactics.

Democrats on Capitol Hill are not proving to be the easy targets Mr. Bush anticipated when he attacked the "gridlock Congress" at the GOP convention. Instead, they may beat him for the first time on a veto override, a major coup for the Clinton campaign, and they have put the president on the unpopular side on such issues as family leave, cable TV re-regulation and nuclear testing.

Persistent efforts by congressional Democrats to link Mr. Bush to the Iran-contra scandal are also having some momentary success. A pre-election book by arms dealer Richard Secord contends that then-Vice President Bush was more "in the loop" than he has admitted in supporting arms sales to Iran. Thus, the Democrats have a "character issue" they can fling at the president to counter GOP taunts about Mr. Clinton's dodging and weaving over his draft avoidance during the Vietnam War.

The president now has to contemplate the reentry into the race of H. Ross Perot, whose dislike for Mr. Bush is undisguised. This could cost him Texas and seal his defeat, which may be one of Mr. Perot's objectives. But at least it scrambles an election race that has tilted in Mr. Clinton's favor since Mr. Perot's mid-July pullout. Mr. Bush needs an outstanding October to overcome a sorry September.

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