Lack of goals and rhetoric to pull them off is costing Bush, observers say

November 01, 1992|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Staff Writer

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- When asked at a televised tow meeting here the other night why he won't repeat his 1988 no-new-taxes pledge, President Bush explained, "I've learned . . . the firmness of a pledge can get you in trouble."

That may well be the epitaph of an administration that even close friends of Mr. Bush say was too slow to grasp the critical importance of words to the presidency.

It isn't just the breaking of a dramatic pledge that is making his re-election so difficult, these sympathetic observers say. His deeper problem is that he never explained himself very well to the American people.

On the tax issue, on the suffering economy and even on foreign policy initiatives that are perceived to be his strength, Mr. Bush failed to send a clear message about what he was trying to accomplish and why it was important.

As late as last week, his advisers were still sifting through the enormous pile of Bush rhetoric trying to find a crisp summary of what he wants to do with a second term that could be used for campaign ads. They failed.

"Leadership is verbalism," explained one Republican with close ties to the administration. "The presidency is a bully pulpit. There's got to be poetry. . . . This is the most idea-less, rudderless administration I have ever experienced."

When things got tough all over the United States because of the recession, Mr. Bush didn't have anything inspirational to offer. And so people figured he didn't know what was going on or didn't care.

"They never got it," said Kevin Phillips, a Republican political consultant. "If you listened to George Bush, there wasn't a problem."

Even now, Mr. Bush is claiming from the stump that the country is much better off economically than it may seem to the individuals who are still out of work. Voters frequently complain that isn't much consolation.

Convention a disaster

The weaknesses of the Bush administration became the weaknesses of the Bush re-election campaign.

It began too late, took too much for granted and had trouble finding a message. Staff bickering staggered the effort. And in a misguided attempt to satisfy the rebellious right wing, the Bush campaign put on a national nominating convention that was considered a disaster and embarrassment by the GOP rank and file.

James A. Baker III, the president's close friend who left his post as secretary of state to take over as White House chief of staff and campaign czar in August, sized the situation up immediately as a lost cause, friends said. He turned much of the responsibility over to Richard G. Darman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and holed up in the White House out of public view.

"This year has been as badly conducted both by the White House and the Bush campaign as I've ever seen," said Lyn C. Nofziger, who served as campaign press secretary for President Ronald Reagan. "They have really just got the show on the road."

Thanks to lingering doubts about Democratic nominee Bill Clinton and the wild card tossed into the race by independent Ross Perot, Mr. Bush is thought to have a long-shot chance of eking out a victory Tuesday.

But this underdog position is about the last place anyone would have predicted for Mr. Bush in the spring of 1991 when the U.S. victory in the Persian Gulf war drove his job approval ratings up to record highs of almost 90 percent.

Already, though, he had made serious missteps that would come back to haunt him.

As Mr. Bush indicated at the Grand Rapids town meeting, he hadn't realized how seriously people took that tax pledge, which was the major "sound bite" of his 1988 campaign.

Nor did he recognize how much it undermined his credibility when he broke the pledge to reach an agreement with the Democratic leaders of Congress in 1990 that he hoped would cut the deficit and avert an economic downturn.

Political analysts looking back say the president should have done a better job at the time of explaining why the budget deal was so important. But the one time Mr. Bush made a televised address on the topic, he asked voters to call their congressional representatives urging a vote in favor of the deal. The vast majority of callers urged a vote of "no."

The deal was approved on a second try in the early hours of a weekend session.

Republican conservatives, in particular, were so angry and felt so betrayed they ran a challenger, conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, against Mr. Bush in the Republican primaries. It was Mr. Buchanan's ads that vividly reminded the country of the broken pledge, made with such machismo at the '' 1988 GOP convention: "Read my lips. No new taxes."

"Read my lips" is the wound that makes everything else look minor," Mr. Nofziger said. "I think he destroyed his credibility with the American people."

But at the time, the controversy surrounding the budget deal was obscured by the drama of the building confrontation with Iraq.

Postwar chances squandered

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