Comparing Pres. Bush with Pres. Bush

Posted: May 07, 2003 12:00 AM

Pundits cannot resist the easy device of comparing President Bush's re-election chances to that of his father's in 1992, although they are different men in different times. Logic might suggest seeking out other former presidents more similarly situated to President Bush for their re-election -- perhaps Reagan in 1984, or Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, or perhaps Richard Nixon in 1972. But alphabetic similarity seems to trump historic memory in the minds of commentators. The received analysis is that Bush pere fought a successful Mideast war, then the economy went sour, and he lost. Now, Bush fils has fought a successful Middle East war, the economy has gone sour, and thus ... voila -- he may lose, too. The problem with this analysis is that Bush pere did not lose the 1992 election because of the economy -- although had the economy been seen by the public to be satisfactory, he surely would have won. There was so much more that went into Bush pere's defeat in 1992. Indeed, the only president in modern times who lost his re-election bid just because of a bad economy was Herbert Hoover in 1932 -- during the depths of the Great Depression.

Mr. Bush's re-election problems began in 1988 when he campaigned on the Pledge of Allegiance, the ACLU, flag factories, criminals on parole and "read my lips -- no new taxes." While doubtlessly heartfelt, his positions on the first four issues were essentially issues of convenience in running against the pastel liberalism of Gov. Michael Dukakis. The issue that mattered -- the central issue for Republicans since the mid 1970s and currently -- was no new taxes. And on that issue he changed his mind and raised taxes in 1990. With that decision he split his party and outraged his base support. Ed Rollins, then running the House Republican election committee, actually (and wisely) advised Republican candidates for Congress to run against Bush on the tax issue. From that trench of a divided party, Bush soared in popularity by his six brilliant months of creating a coalition and winning the Kuwait War. But the foundation of his support was rotten. After the victory in the spring of 1991, with the economy in the tank, he publicly said he would delay any economic program until 1992 (in fact, he never presented a plausible economic stimulus package). His only domestic agenda items after the war were a transportation bill and a pro forma crime bill. Congressional Republicans were in open revolt -- supported by the then newly dominant Rush Limbaugh -- who was effectively recruiting millions of conservative voters not pleased with Bush's tax increase.

In 1992, Bush faced a serious challenge from Pat Buchanan, who received 37 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote. Buchanan's prime time "cultural wars" speech at the Republican convention (which I enjoyed) became a media scandal for Bush. His convention had been poorly run because he had insisted that his Secretary of State, Jim Baker, resign and run his campaign. Baker resented returning to politics and refused to manage the convention. (Can anyone imagine Karl Rove not doing all in his considerable power to help re-elect George W. Bush next year?) Also, Bush had lost his brilliant and ruthless campaign manager -- Lee Atwater -- to a premature cancerous death, and was left without top-drawer campaign advice and operations.

Meanwhile, entering from the planet Mars, in February, Ross Perot announced on the "Larry King Live" show that he was running for president as an independent. Perot, a fellow Texan, deeply hated President Bush -- presumably for his well-born status -- and proceeded to do all he could to defeat him. By attacking Bush as an independent, he, in the words of Democratic political operative Paul Tully, "departisanized the critique of Bush," thus giving credibility to Clinton's campaign attacks. Then, on the Thursday of the Clinton nominating convention, Perot dramatically dropped out -- giving Clinton a surge of support from 25 percent in a three-way race to 57 percent in a two-way race against Bush. Bush's lackluster campaign took another hit in the October presidential debate when he looked befuddled and checked his watch -- seen as a sign of disdain for the voters. With all that, his campaign was surging in the last week, when the Iran-Contra special prosecutor dropped a bombshell the weekend before the election and indicted former Republican Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger (which falsely implied that Bush might have been guilty of something regarding Iran-Contra). Bush lost the following Tuesday, with 38 percent of the popular vote to Clinton's 43 percent and Perot's 19 percent. Despite the economy, Bush pere would probably have won -- but for almost any of that cataract of campaign misfortunes and incompetence.

The current President Bush's position is almost the polar opposite of his father's. He possesses a united party, no challenger and fervent, almost unanimous, Republican support. He is fighting his heart out for tax cuts and a growing economy. He doesn't have a regional, unthreatening war behind him, but is in the middle of a dangerous and ongoing war that the public supremely trusts him to execute. He is supported by the best political operative in the business, and he has sustained higher job approval numbers, longer, than any modern president. Of course, in politics, anything can happen. But short of another depression, in the next election the decisive element is not going to be the economy -- stupid.