WASHINGTON — Even Washington--where residents can smell blood in the water faster than a hungry shark--is struggling to assess the extraordinary decline in credibility of the President of the United States. In the wicked but descriptive words of Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), "George Bush is in deep Sununu."
After eight weeks of glory, shaping what he called a "New World Order" around the multinational force in Saudi Arabia, Bush came unglued this month. His politics seemed to defend tax breaks for the rich before pursuing the larger national interest of deficit reduction. Bush's approval ratings have dropped from 75%-80% to 50%-55% in just a month--the sharpest decline anyone can remember without a scandal.
As GOP prospects plunge, top party strategists are openly predicting disappointment in the Nov. 6 elections--ending realignment hopes. Talk of Bush being "Carterized"--Washington's ultimate put-down--is in the air, his reelection is considered increasingly doubtful and top White House staffers such as Chief of Staff John H. Sununu have become jokes on Capitol Hill. One influential magazine has called on Secretary of State James A. Baker III to resign for mishandling the events leading up to Iraq's August invasion of Kuwait. There are even signs of unraveling public support for the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf.
For the moment, however, the careful observer must draw back with the caveat "Yes, but . . . . "--in this case "Yes, but things could change."
They did for Jimmy Carter. In autumn, 1979, after Washington had snickered for two years and Carter's approval had dropped below 30%, an overlapping pair of foreign-policy crises--Iran's seizure of the U.S. Embassy staff in Tehran as hostages and the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan--boosted the embattled chief executive's rating back into the solid 60s. The fact that he was fumbling and fading again by spring did not change the opportunities of autumn.
Presidents, especially those like Bush, with foreign-policy skills, cannot be prematurely counted out. Nonetheless, Bush--like the "one-hoss shay" in Oliver Wendell Holmes' famous poem--is on the verge of falling apart in all directions almost simultaneously.
The linchpin, of course, has been Bush's lack of leadership in the deficit-reduction confrontation. His inept strategy and flip attitude--that famous "read my hips" crack while jogging--let Democrats stay one step ahead, relentlessly telling voters how Bush's demands and delays put helping the rich ahead of dealing with the deficit. This was the devastating context in which the President's ratings plummeted 20 points in as many days. The Persian Gulf President let himself become the Palm Beach President, as Democrats looked on in happy disbelief and Republicans in nervous horror.
The problem for Republicans is that this is not a one-shot failure. Bush's dithering has confirmed the Democrats in a 1990-92 strategy of targeting the GOP as defenders of the rich--a proven Republican Achilles' heel dating back to the days of populism and William Jennings Bryan a century ago. Indeed, the possibility of a new economic populism has worried Bush strategists since 1988, and now, even without a specific Democratic presidential candidate fitting the bill, the 1990s are beginning to look like a decade with a populist leitmotif.
Class warfare is a misnomer. There is almost no serious precedent in U.S. politics. But if class lines are too blurry a battleground, popular or populist insurgencies against political and economic elites have a long history--and the Democrats now raising this issue are harnessing a powerful tradition that could discomfort Bush for the rest of his White House tenure. The question is how much. For populism and anger over economic fairness to move into high gear, four provocations have been necessary:
First, there has to be a national economic downturn--the worse it gets, the greater the reaction against the policies and failures of the allied political and economic elites in charge. This may be under way.
Second, the public has to see capitalism losing its creative, entrepreneurial credentials and tilting more toward speculation, manipulation and greed. With Michael Milken, Charles H. Keating Jr. and Neil Bush so much in the headlines, this transition is already in process.
Third, voters have to have a sense that the rich have been getting a lot more money a lot faster than everyone else--and, in this respect, statistics for the late 1980s are compelling.
Last, the public has to perceive that the ruling Washington elite has helped the rich with unfair preferences. This is why Bush and the Republicans have so hurt themselves by putting such emphasis on upper-bracket tax breaks. Voters' worst suspicions are being confirmed, at the most inopportune time.