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George Bush Must Change Subject From His Record

DECODING THE CAMPAIGN. Another in a series of articles critiquing the '92 presidential strategies

August 09, 1992|John P. Sears | John P. Sears, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Ronald Reagan in 1976 and 1980

WASHINGTON — If you're George Bush, you wonder how this could have happened to you: 90% approval rating in January, 1991, 33% today--with only the Republican convention remaining as an important opportunity to reverse the trend.

Presidents never think they have done a bad job. They were there, they know the decisions they made and, obviously, they wouldn't have acted as they did unless they thought it was the best thing to do. As a result, their first reaction to a bad standing in the polls is to deny it. If the people only understood what the alternatives were, if they only knew the complexities, if they only realized how difficult it is to be President, they wouldn't feel the President had done a bad job.

But in America, we reward results. If there haven't been any results lately, the perception is that the President isn't doing his job. Bush has been slow to realize this and it has cost him valuable time in addressing his reelection chances.

In politics, the general rule is that when the nature of the discussion does not suit your purpose, what you have to do is change the subject. This action is mandatory and it is definitely called for here--as long as the subject is the last four years, and Bush's stewardship of them, victory is unlikely.

At the White House, the standard logic seems to be to make Bill Clinton the issue, to picture him as a person of limited character and experience incapable of deciding the great issues a President must resolve. There are quite a few flaws with this thinking:

--The fact that Bush has failed to revive a lagging economy and has failed to address the nation's educational, environmental or infrastructural problems leaves him without standing to raise Clinton's inadequacies.

--Since the Cold War has ended, attempts to paint your opponent as inexperienced no longer have the tacit ability to frighten people into thinking he might blunder into a nuclear war.

--Clinton has already shown some dexterity about throwing personal charges back in your face--i.e., if Clinton's the governor of a small state that doesn't work, Bush is the President of a large country that doesn't work.

--Four years ago, Bush was successful in making Michael S. Dukakis the issue, but today he has a record of his own and cannot so easily shift attention.

I would thus propose that Bush busy himself with explaining what the future holds for the United States and, in this context, what he would do to cause the United States to be a prosperous leader in this new world.

To position himself to discuss the future, Bush must tactfully admit that his first four years have not been a total success. There is danger in this, because if a President admits too many failings, or suggests--as Jimmy Carter attempted--that things were simply beyond his control, he proves himself inadequate to be President. But, on the other hand, the sympathy of the American people for someone who has learned from his past, and now pledges to make use of these lessons for the good of the country, is considerable. At any rate, some "confession and avoidance"--to use the legal term--is necessary if Bush now wishes to discuss the future instead of the past.

Many would view this plan as high risk and unconventional. But to be low risk and conventional when your approval rating stands at 33% is to guarantee defeat. Others will say it is Orwellian to attempt to discuss the future when you have a four-year record to defend. Yet one of the great powers of a President is that he can discuss anything that relates to the office and receive a fair hearing from the people--especially on the occasion of his own renomination. Just ask Harry S. Truman, who under different circumstances found a way to avoid discussing his Administration and won a race in 1948 that was considered unwinnable.

If it is true that great leaders are made out of difficult circumstances, Bush has the opportunity to demonstrate that he possesses all the qualities of leadership that the people have not seen in his first four years. But to accomplish this, he must throw away the polls, and the conventional wisdom, and show us that he is the best man for the job--not the lesser of two evils. I can only hope he will seize this opportunity. Win or lose, it is the best thing he can do for his country.

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