Maybe the Bush of 1988 was uncommonly lucky


October 26, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

Political campaigns that are in trouble abound in sweet talk in public and bitter ironies in private.

Here are some of the ironies that the George Bush campaign has been kicking around recently:

Once upon a time, George Bush was a brilliant debater. In 1988, Bush won those two debates with Michael Dukakis, didn't he?

Well, not really. When you go back and look at the videotapes of the 1988 debates you realize that Bush was not that hot a debater.

He looked, in fact, no different than he looked in the debates of 1992.

So why did he look so good back then? Because Michael Dukakis looked worse.

Asked a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't question on whether he would execute the imaginary killer of his wife, Dukakis gave an answer that was insufficiently "red meat" for the press and public. And his campaign never recovered.

So Bush won by default. Which is not the same thing as being a good debater.

This small point was overlooked by the Bush campaign when it proposed three debates against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.

Jim Baker was going to be the savior of the campaign. Baker took off his secretary of state hat and put on his chief of staff and de facto campaign manager hat just in time to really screw things up.

It seems pretty clear now that the Republican Convention in Houston was a major turning point for the Bush campaign.

By allowing Pat Buchanan to speak in prime time and allowing other right-wing extremists to dominate the tone of the convention, Baker and the Bush team managed to alienate tens of thousands of voters they desperately needed.

And speaking of Baker -- where is he? In 1988, he was a highly visible spokesman for the Bush campaign. Today, he is all but invisible.

Is Baker staying in the shadows in order to distance himself from a Bush defeat so that Baker will not be tainted when he runs for president in 1996?

It seems so. When Baker was recently asked how much blame he should get if Bush lost in November, Baker replied that "the White House chief of staff is not the campaign chairman."

With friends like this, does George Bush need enemies?

Negative campaigning really worked well for Bush in 1988. True. But it is not working in 1992 because it worked so well in 1988.

The Willie Horton attack on Dukakis succeeded in helping to make Bush president, but its racial overtones were more than a )) little embarrassing to Bush and to the nation.

Bush promised to be "kinder and gentler" and the American public became more sensitized to how easily it can be manipulated by the use of "wedge" or "hot button" issues.

The media also took on the role of Fairness Sheriffs and began evaluating TV ads and candidate attacks.

All this has diminished the effectiveness of negative campaigning on the presidential level and makes Bill Clinton's call for "sticking to the issues" even more appealing to the public.

Bush won in 1988 by assembling a brilliant campaign staff that made all the right moves, right? That was the popular wisdom. It's always the popular wisdom when a guy wins big. And if Clinton wins, you'll be reading all kinds of stories on how brilliant he and his staff were.

The trouble is, when you win it makes everything you did look brilliant and tends to obscure other key factors.

Right now the Clinton people are getting tennis elbow pounding each other on the back and congratulating themselves about how they are making all the right moves.

But just like General Winter defeated Napoleon, General Economy should get most of the credit if Bush is defeated.

And Clinton should keep in mind what Bush failed to keep in mind: When people vote for you because they are really voting against the other guy, it doesn't give you much of a base of support four years down the road.

At least George Bush can always say he defeated Saddam Hussein. Which is the biggest irony of all:

On Jan. 21, 1993, Saddam Hussein most likely will still be president of Iraq.

But will George Bush still be president of the United States?

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