The great irony of 1992 is that George Bush may well be defeated on the one issue _ the sour U.S. economy _ over which presidents have little control.
Less control, anyway, than they pretend to have. Presidents cultivate the fiction that they can fine-tune the economy, though the fiction is more assertively advertised in good times than bad. You can count on the fingers of one hand the few recent occasions when presidential action certifiably affected the economy. It isn't that presidential economic policies don't matter. But cause and effect connections between policy and result are elusive. Bush's misfortune this year is that he inherited cleanup duties after Reagan's "morning in America," which resulted in a colossal fiscal imbalance and a monster debt. Bush did nothing about either.
The real case against George Bush, however, lies less in identifiable policy errors than in the mediocrity and frivolity of his leadership. Democratic leaders have an obligation to treat the forms and customs of democracy with respect. When it suits his convenience, which is frequently, Bush treats those forms (especially elections) with contempt.
In 1988 he wrapped himself in the American flag and scored off the hapless Michael Dukakis with subtle appeals to nativism (Dukakis is the son of recent Greek immigrants) and appeals to what Sen. William Fulbright once called "the swinish cult of anti-intellectualism" (Dukakis, said Bush, got his ideas from the "Harvard boutique.") Now he taunts Bill Clinton for his association with Oxford University; and his running mate, in the same fashion, notes the contrast between his own public schooling and Albert Gore's attendance at St. Albans in Washington.
What we see here is Bush's baffling blindness to a basic political fact: His cynical campaigning leads to convictionless, directionless government. Yet he seems not to grasp the connection.
Lacking a program, Bush advocates quack cures in the form of dubious constitutional changes _ to limit legislative terms, to give presidents the line-item veto, to mandate balanced budgets (he has yet to submit one), to redefine fetuses as persons. He is the first president in the 202-year history of the First Amendment to propose tampering with this cornerstone of our liberties. He "disagreed" with a Supreme Court decision, joined in by two Reagan appointees, Kennedy and Scalia, that flag burning can be a form of free speech.
Conventional wisdom gives Bush higher marks for foreign policy management. But even that performance is easy to overpraise. It increasingly appears that his policies helped arm Saddam Hussein and may have emboldened the Iraqi dictator to invade Kuwait. Bush's initially passive response to the sack of Kuwait brought Margaret Thatcher flying to Aspen to buck him up. Thus prompted, he did well enough. Bush likewise made the right noises about the collapse of communism, but has done little by way of follow-up to shore up the precarious foothold of Russian democrats. Aid programs had to be pushed in Congress with little administration help.
But it is, again, Bush's style of electioneering and the programless administration that inevitably follows which define the limit of his political gifts. If any president in my lifetime has used the "bully pulpit" to slighter advantage than George Bush I can't think who it was; and I am not forgetting those lords of misrule, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
If there were no other grounds for Bush's dismissal Nov. 3, this would suffice.
Washington Post Writers Group