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BEYOND REPAIR? BUSH LOOKS TO THE CONVENTION FOR POLITICAL SALVATION : Not Since Hoover . . .

August 16, 1992|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips, publisher of the American Political Report, is the author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor" (Random House)

WASHINGTON — The Republican National Convention, meeting this week in Houston, is shaping up as the most skittish to endorse a sitting GOP President since the 1932 convention crossed its fingers and renominated another unpopular and failed economic policy-maker--Herbert C. Hoover. Even if George Bush, now at 30% approval in the polls, gets a short-term boost from a good speech on Thursday, the precedents are about as chilling as Texas' August air conditioning.

The problem is that Bush comes to Houston about 20-25 points behind his Democratic rival Bill Clinton. Since no presidential candidate has ever overcome a late-summer deficit this big, it's a race many Republicans worry cannot be won--despite James A. Baker III's taking the reins of the campaign--unless Bush and Baker turn in performances of a lifetime.

For the other three Republican presidents elected since World War II--Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan--renominating conventions were triumphs en route to landslide reelections. Only Gerald R. Ford, an appointive President, suffered through a divisive convention and lost in November. It's this history that's crumbling around Bush's feet.

Economics, obviously, has been the critical new ingredient. The GOP's big winners got recessions out of the way early and enjoyed surging economies in time for reelection. Bush, by contrast, has produced his economic surges in bankruptcies, foreclosures, deficits and unemployment lines. Indeed, Clinton correctly charges Bush with presiding over the lowest economic growth rate of any President since--who else?--Hoover.

This Bush-Hoover parallel is no coincidence. Bush has fallen afoul of the same economic cycle--a debt-and-speculative boom that becomes a bust--that defeated Hoover and scuttled the GOP coalition in 1932. Bush, like Hoover, was a man who didn't understand what was happening as he watched the economic downturn linger and spread. Bush's economic recovery, like Hoover's prosperity, is always just around the corner. Like Hoover, Bush blames everybody else--but voters blame Bush, now giving him less than 20% approval for managing the economy. Hoover probably commanded even less respect in 1932, but there were no polls.

Hoover had lost credibility, like Bush today. Huge numbers of Republicans disapproved of him and leading newspapers called on him to retire. Then as now, the dominant GOP coalition showed signs of collapsing. In recent polls, for example, about 40% of Republicans disapprove of how Bush has handled the economy, about 30% disapprove of Bush's overall performance, 25%-30% are disappointed enough with Bush to vote for Bill Clinton. That's not poll data; that's disgust.

It is telling that 30%-40% of GOP members of Congress have decided to skip the Houston convention. Much more is involved than family squabbles, as Bush officials contend. If the convention cannot rise above Bushdom's recent stale rhetoric and shrill fear-mongering, today's GOP voter disaffection could turn into autumn's disintegrating coalition. The last time an aging GOP governing coalition had so many members moving toward the exits was, of course, 1932.

This explains the Houston convention managers' obvious preoccupation with old icons--not least, former President Reagan--and slotting speeches by the factional leaders of disaffected conservatives: Jack F. Kemp, Patrick J. Buchanan and religious right stalwart Pat Robertson. White House fears that the coalition is breaking up underlie the kowtowing to the right on platform issues. Most GOP presidential campaigns have been free to target Democrats; Bush has to work to keep one-third of his party from straying.

Yet he and his advisers fail to understand that stronger conservatism is not necessarily the remedy to keep a conservative coalition intact. It wasn't in 1932, when moderate and progressive Republicans led the bolt to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democrats, and it isn't now. Sure, prominent conservatives have taken the lead in dismissing Bush's presidency, but the millions of angry Republicans preparing to vote for Clinton represent a more centrist viewpoint. They could harden against Bush if he courts the right with anti-abortion platform planks and further tax cuts for the richest 1% of Americans. Democrats made a related mistake when the liberal coalition was breaking up in the late 1960s: They swung left to cement their appeal to dissident liberals--and wound up conceding a redefined center to a generation of Republican presidents.

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