The Bush loyalists: Waiting for Godot

Mona Charen

October 07, 1992|By Mona Charen

AT AN INFORMAL gathering of conservative Republicans, talk turned to where George Bush went wrong. There followed 45 minutes' worth of Bush bashing, until one stalwart piped up, saying ironically, "And we're the loyalists!"

This election is shaping up as Anybody But Bush. Even Republicans showed their displeasure with the president during the primary season, when Pat Buchanan or Uncommitted was able to pull 30 percent of the vote.

People know very little about what Bill Clinton stands for. (And, it is safe to assume, they will be unpleasantly surprised when they find out.) But they are so disenchanted with Mr. Bush that they're willing to close their eyes and hope that Mr. Clinton will be better.

The Bush campaign today is so inept, the president himself so maladroit, that the whole effect is reminiscent of the gang that couldn't shoot straight. Recently, the president thought he had come up with a real zinger against his opponent. He quoted Mr. Clinton as referring to "a president's powerless moments when countries are invaded, friends are threatened, Americans are held hostage, and our nation's interests are on the line."

The president became sarcastic. "My America is not powerless. My America takes care of its interests." There was just one small problem. Mr. Clinton never said "powerless." He said "perilous."

The Bush campaign is pathetic. Professionals shouldn't make such stupid mistakes. It wasn't an understandable error. Why would a staffer think Mr. Clinton would say "powerless." Does anyone running for president want to portray himself as potentially impotent?

Still, it was only last year that George Bush seemed so strong that few Democrats were willing to take the field against him. How did it all implode so fast, leaving the president limping toward almost certain defeat?

Several responses suggest themselves: the budget deal, the failure to seize the domestic initiative after Desert Storm, acquiescence to the quota bill, the mishandling of the economy. Yet none of those errors would have proved fatal were it not for one over-arching flaw in the Bush presidency -- the complete misunderstanding of what is meant by leadership.

It's strange when you think about it, but this is a president who has never been comfortable as a democratic leader.

It was first apparent during the autumn of 1989, when the (reverse) dominoes were falling in Eastern Europe. It was a moment of such transcendence that it begged for presidential notice. We expect our presidents to cap important moments in our national life with important words. "A date which will live in infamy." "Ich bin ein Berliner." "Our long national nightmare is over." "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Yet the president had nothing to say about the fall of communism.

President Bush has never liked speaking to the American people. He eschewed public speeches in favor of frequent press conferences -- not prime-time events where the public would be in attendance through television but afternoon chats with the White House press corps, all of whom he knew personally. Where Ronald Reagan had leapfrogged the press by going over their heads directly to the people, Mr. Bush was more comfortable trying to win friends in Washington, D.C.

In 1990, when the Democrats in Congress pushed for a tax increase, as he had famously predicted they would in his "lips" speech, Mr. Bush declined to speak to America about the choices before the nation, choosing instead to huddle with the leadership and hammer out a "compromise."

Even during his finest hour -- the response to Saddam Hussein -- he failed over and over again to persuade the public of the need for military action. Skilled at convincing other world leaders to cooperate, Mr. Bush left it to Colin Powell, Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney and half a dozen editorial writers to make the case to the American people. (Saddam provided invaluable help too.)

The presidency's power lies principally in its persuasive heft. This is doubly true when the Congress is controlled by the other party. Mr. Reagan understood this perfectly and made the people his partners. Mr. Bush, alas, has tended to see them as the hired help -- to be bought off from time to time, but never consulted.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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