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Bush: Sleeping Scared

Letter From Washington

By John A. Cloud

WASHINGTON--George Bush's fear is almost palpable. You see it in his eyes, you hear it in the worried tones of his once-bullish staffers, you sense it even in the White House.

In public, the president constantly gropes to explain his predicament. Nearly every Bush speech now contains some reference to how "strange" or "odd" this election cycle is.

"I've never seen such a strange political year..." he said last Monday outside Chicago. Then, on Tuesday before an enthusiastic crowd in Jacksonville, Fla.: "And I know that, look, this is a funny year. You live and die every time you turn on the news, you see some new poll."

Quite simply, Bush looks and sounds tired. His speeches seem to contain as much of the vanquished mea culpa attitude as the conquering veni vidi vici sentiment.

Roger B. Porter, the president's domestic policy adviser, and others in the White House seem to sense Bush's fear and listlessness. In a get-together with Harvard students earlier this summer, Porter, a former Harvard professor, spent much of his time defending Bush' commitment to domestic policy. The next week, Chief of Staff Samuel K. Skinner told the same group that no one should stay in Washington too long, referring to member of Congress but sounding like Bill Clinton. Both men appeared defensive, even in the Roosevelt Room among doting Institute of Politics wonks.

Bush and his advisers do have much to fear. Clinton has the credibility and willingness to blast Bush and defend himself--two characteristics Michael S. Dukakis sorely lacked.

Clearly this presidential election is "strange" in the sense that the Democrats are doing well. (Hell, it would be strange even if they were simply avoiding their quadrennial suicide. This year, they're not only doing that--they're winning.)

But Bush can't hope to win by pointing out that politics is an odd business, full of changing calculations. That's because most Americans don't fear this change as much as he does.

The desire for change is nearly incomprehensible to the president. At times he seems to think change is just "another crazy idea" from the Democrats, as he labeled the Clinton health care plan. "If the other side gets in power, change is all you'll have left in your pocket," he zings Clinton occasionally.

And at the times--usually in the same speech--he casts himself as the true agent of change. "I stand for a change," Bush told the Jacksonville audience, asking them to help him "change" Congress by throwing the Democrats out. In another speech, he called himself "the candidate of change."

George Bush for change? It is at these moments that the president spins his most unbelievable rhetoric; and his most politically retarded.

The very idea that an incumbent president would run for reelection by the telling voters that change is necessary strikes an oxymoronic cord. As one old reporter put it, "In all the politics I've heard tell of...I don't recall a single politician ever having asked for a second term of office in order to make sure that the failed policies of his first would be abandoned in favor of something else."

Bush will never win the change vote, which Clinton locked up with some kind, departing words from Ross Perot. More important, it's not clear that the president believes change is necessary. When he speaks of change, he usually means pushing domestic policy farther right. But he has not Shown the political will to do that in the last three and a half years, and he is understandably loath to criticize his own decisions.

Take the case of federal regulation. Conservatives savage the president for presiding over one of the greatest increases in governmental regulation ever during his watch. A Heritage Foundation study last month flayed Bush for allowing the amount of money spent annually on administering regulatory programs to swell from $9.6 billion in 1988 to $11.3 billion today.

The Clean Air Act, the Civil Rights Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act snare most of the blame for this increase. But Bush rightly defends his signing of all three bills. His campaign manager, Frederic V. Malek, told Republicans on the Hill that Bush would run on this record. The response from at least one conservative member of Congress: "That ain't going to do it."

Two weeks ago, the Bush-Quayle campaign dispatched Gov. Carroll A. Campbell of South Carolina to Washington to bash Clinton, but when faced with questions about regulation, he had to fudge. Campbell at first said a Clinton administration would mean regulatory horrors. But then he had to admit that Bush-approved legislation meant huge regulatory increases--and he had to defend Bush's signatures on the bills. It was classic double-speak.

A second case in point: the budget deficit. Bush has called his own acquiescence to the 1990 tax hike "a mistake" But Bush and many of his advisers simply don't believe this. Budget director Richard G. Darman '64 strongly backed the compromise, as did Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady. It's true that some administration officials opposed the measure, but Bush himself bragged about it privately. One of his top aides told Japanese officials that the budget deal showed the Bush administration "knowing how to do the difficult things" on the deficit.

The point is that talk from Bush today about the need for change is not just politically asinine--it's not credible. Bush is a moderate politician who, like Clinton, believes in compromise to reach moderate solution--on taxes, regulation, civil rights, and in the Gulf War.

His view of politics--that it's "weird" and "strange"--contrasts sharply with that of his predecessor. Anthony R. Dolan, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Reagan speechwriter, put that president's philosophy best: "Ideas are the stuff of politics," he said.

When ideas form your conceptual framework of politics, you don't view the process as odd--you view it in clear terms of ideological conflict. George Bush ahs rarely been able to do that. His view of politics is precisely what Dolan said Reagan's was not: That it is "about meetings, conferences, phone calls, rules and decisions"--the mechanism of compromise and moderation.

Bush uses these tools extremely well, as we saw when he put together the anti-Saddam coalition. But when ideologies swing voters beyond concerns about who can best use these tools, Bush gets uncomfortable. Now he is left pleading with the public to judge which candidate they "trust" more with the instruments of governing.

The president, it is becoming increasingly clear, will lose this election. If any case, if Bush hopes to win, he must cast aside his fear and dishonesty about wanting change. And he must speak with strong conviction about what he does believe in and has been practicing--the politics of moderation.

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