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Why Is This Man Smiling?

With his campaign in turmoil, Bush not only has little to cheer about but also has no apparent plan to pull himself out of the doldrums

By Micheal Duffy / Washington

Mar. 16, 1992

(TIME; March 16, 1992) -- George Bush is a survivor. Faced with political extinction in 1988, he promised voters "no new taxes" and won the White House in return. Two years later, he raised taxes in exchange for a budget deal. But when polls in Georgia showed that even country-club Republicans thought Bush was a flip-flopper who didn't stand for anything, Bush pulled another abrupt about-face. "This tax thing is still really bothering people, isn't it?" Bush mused to an Oval Office visitor last Monday morning. "Maybe I should clear the air."

Within hours, Bush had renounced the 1990 budget deal as the biggest mistake of his presidency. "If I had that to do over, I wouldn't do it," Bush told an interviewer from the Atlanta Journal. To a local television station, Bush added, "Anytime you get hammered on something, I guess you want to redo it." Democrats seized on the stunning reversal to charge the President with an abject lack of conviction. "People are concerned about presidential leadership," said House Budget chairman Leon Panetta. "They don't want a President who says he's sorry every two days."

Like the Democratic primary campaign, the Republican race was settling into a two-man contest -- between Bush and his lesser self. Gone is the commander of Desert Storm, the man who confidently vowed that Saddam Hussein's aggression "will not stand." In his place is a calculating politician who whines about "flak." Rather than telling Americans why he wants another four years and what he intends to do with them, Bush is repudiating one of the few domestic accomplishments of his first term -- a successful budget compromise that cut and capped spending, raised taxes and reduced government borrowing by nearly $500 billion.

Far from appeasing those who resented his broken promises, the President's reversals could only make supporters wonder when and where the next switch will take place. Even top White House officials are flabbergasted. "I don't know how to explain this," said one aide. "What we are doing is simply unbelievable."

It was hard to tell if the President's desperate act did much good at the polls last Tuesday. As expected, Bush won every contest handily, boosting his delegate count over TV commentator Pat Buchanan 148 to 20. But Buchanan continued to draw a solid third in the Republican contests; in Georgia, where he concentrated his efforts, Buchanan won 36%. The next morning, in a move he admitted was "presumptuous," Buchanan called on Bush to get out of the race. Buchanan, said Bush spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, "has gone Looney Tunes on us."

Maybe so, but Buchanan is no longer a minor irritant to Bush's re-election effort. With his hard-hitting attacks, linking Bush to everything from higher taxes and trade deficits to pornographic art, he is softening Bush up for the Democratic assault in the fall. Though he mostly confined himself to the ideological margins last week, Buchanan nonetheless serves as the convenient vessel into which voters dissatisfied with Bush's handling of the economy and other national affairs can pour their resentment. And with the unemployment level rising last month to 7.3%, the highest figure since 1985, discontent with the Administration seemed certain to grow in the immediate future. It is a measure of the problems Buchanan is creating that Bush's aides no longer speak of the former Nixon speechwriter in civil terms; in private they are positively venomous, calling him "crazy" and "delusional."

Bush began to think about renouncing the budget deal two weeks ago, when he asked a group of old advisers at a private dinner, "What are the lessons of New Hampshire?" In subsequent days, Bush called on his son George W. Bush and conservative William Bennett for their views. They warned the President he was in danger of losing his conservative base for good. "You cannot fly without your right wing," Bennett told Bush last week.

But no sooner had Bush shuffled to the right than other advisers began to tell him that he should have moved to the left. Roughly 40% of Buchanan's support comes from independents, Bush's aides calculate, and the President will be hard pressed to win them back by pandering to conservatives. Better for Bush to concentrate on the mainstream voters who carried him to victory in 1988 and whose support is crucial in such key states as Illinois, New Jersey and Michigan. "The Bush people have a choice," said a senior campaign adviser. "They can woo the conservatives and lose the election, or they can go after a different voter and win the election."

In fact, the President has to do both -- which helps explain why the Bush-Quayle campaign organization is currently divided over tactics. The re-election team has begun to exhibit a Dukakis-like tendency to botch easy wins, like the photo-op-that-failed with Ronald Reagan in California two weeks ago. Backbiting and finger pointing are rife. Bush's speeches, never memorable in good days, now range from disjointed to enigmatic, bouncing randomly from Cuban independence to the budget deal to trade issues, and leaving many listeners scratching their head. Campaign chairman Bob Teeter, under fire from colleagues for keeping too much to himself, is worried that Bush might post his worst showing in Teeter's home state of Michigan in the March 17 primary. If Bush's normally even-tempered press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, is any guide, fuses at Bush Central are short: last week he castigated reporters traveling with Bush as "lazy bastards" when critical stories began to appear.

Not that things are much better at the White House itself. After three months on the job, chief of staff Sam Skinner has emerged as a restless, one-minute manager who cannot stay focused on a subject for long. Skinner's vaunted personnel reorganization has so far only added extra bodies to the already bloated operation left by his predecessor John Sununu. When Skinner released a plan two weeks ago to funnel all policy issues through a single West Wing committee, one top official cracked, "It's perfect. After three years, we finally get a policymaking body, but we have no policy to make."

Republican consultant Ed Rollins said last week that the President should take a few days off, think about what he wants to do in a second term and then explain his plan to the American public. But others say Bush should play to his foreign policy strengths, telling Americans that he wants to solidify the gains in Eastern Europe, stabilize the former Soviet Union, win a free-trade agreement with Mexico and keep foreign bullies like Libya's Muammar Gaddafi and North Korea's Kim Il Sung in line. Said one disgusted campaign official last week: "This man brought peace to the world, but he's afraid to use his own playbook."

Bush does intend to use that playbook -- but in his own good time. He likens his current predicament to the situation four years ago, when his advisers urged him to break with Ronald Reagan on such issues as the environment, education and child care, in order to court independent voters. Bush waited until the G.O.P. convention in August 1988 to cut the Reagan link. Within weeks, he had the race sewn up. Bush is gambling that voters will wait until the fall to make up their mind, so why show Americans his best pitch until then?

What Bush does not seem to realize is that voters are far more restless, irritable and discontent in March 1992 than they were four years ago. They may judge a President with a lackluster three-year domestic record more harshly than they judged a two-term Vice President who had left few footprints. Late last week in Miami, before he cut short a political swing through the South to return to the White House, Bush staked his claim to a second term with these words: "I believe the next five years are just too important to entrust to the inexperienced." But in a year when people are worried about their jobs, their mortgages and their bills, experience may not be enough.

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