The Democrats, erroneously trumpeted by the press as appealing to the New Generation, must in truth guard against backlash from the baby boomers: Billy Clinton and Albert Gore look like the two guys we hated most in high school. Clinton's got that evil grin; he's laughin' because he's havin' just a little too much fun. He's getting lucky with every girl in school—even, I'll bet, yours. He's goofing off, getting away with it; didn't inhale, my ass. Damn, he even ends up on scholarship in England while there's a stinkin' war going on.
Clinton is far savvier than George Bush, yet this may be his dilemma. He could be Sununu-smart. He's got an attitude, and he looks oh so smug. He is prone to a constant smirk, a fact his operatives must have noticed before wiping it off his face sometime just before the Democratic National Convention. I don't see it much anymore, but it used to be that no matter how hostile the question, you'd see Clinton sporting this all-knowing grin. He's too damn smart! He knows he'll skate out of trouble! He knows he's going to win! (When Hillary Rodham Clinton, Esq., tsk tsk, acted like she was superior to the stay-at-home cookie-baking moms, campaign body snatchers swooped in to grab her, and the old Hillary hasn't been seen since. So just watch out, Bill.)
Albert Gore, on the other hand, never smiles; he doesn't have to, because he's virtually perfect. His daddy was a senator; he's a senator. All the best schools, never in trouble a day in his life, concerned for the environment. For all the hoopla about the generational theme of the Clinton-Gore ticket, polls indicate their lowest support comes from people in their own age group. Aha! Our chance to finally get even with these bastards—on a real election day!
As much as I am personally reluctant to "go negative," the best thing Clinton-Gore have going for them is…Bush-Quayle. The Democrats' strengths are small potatoes (sp?) compared to the GOP malaise. Now, let's preface this with a paean to Commander Bush's outstanding foreign-policy initiatives; he did blow the Gorbachev-Yeltsin transition by a few months, but I'll give him credit on most else.
However, I hate to tell you duffers: England voted out Winston Churchill in 1945, and all he could claim credit for was being absolutely right on appeasement when no one listened, putting together the allied powers, daringly leading a terrified nation through the Battle of Britain, and kicking Hitler's butt. So to George and Dan: We thank you for vanquishing communism. Good job, guys. Now, get outta here, you knuckleheads!
How is one to take Bush seriously? He purports to run against Congress because they forced him into his June 1990 announcement that he would raise taxes. I confess to thinking at the time how brilliant a strategy that budget deal must have been, because it looked so absolutely idiotic to all of us out of the loop, we of limited conceptual skills and nowhere near the intellectual firepower of a John Sununu or a Richard Darman.
There must have been something devilishly ingenious in this "compromise" that was simply inexplicable to those of us on the outside looking in. Give up your one visible promise to the American people, the one that brought you out of Ronald Reagan's shadow and made you look tall. Give it all up without getting anything in return? Oooooh. Must be something really subtle goin' down here. You must have gotten those stupid Democrats to cash in some pretty fat chips out behind the barn. And when we learned that these chiefs of the Bush domestic agenda, Sununu and Darman, had scored perfect 1600s on their SATs, we knew that we were soon to be humbled by the sublime gifts of these masters of the policy universe.
But you see, I am stupido: There was no magic in the smoke. It was just as imbecilic as it looked. Bush got nothing but his political head handed to him. Fooled me again!
The president's men now endeavor to rewrite history with a line about being strong-armed by congressional bullies into breaking the "No New Taxes" pledge. Remember exactly how Bush delivered that 1988 line, and please explain to us where the fudge space is: "The Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I'll say no, and they'll push, and I'll say no, and they'll push again. And I'll say to them: Read my lips. No new taxes." Hey, if you plan to wiggle out of your pledge, at least load it up with some weasel words.
But no, George. You were being accused of wimpdom; George Will was calling you a "lap dog." You wanted to be seen as a rugged, stand-up guy, and so you made a big point of pissing on the weasel words, facing down the tax-grabbing Democrats. It made you look brawny. It gave Bubba a reason to forget you went to Yale and had scaled the ladders of power by being friends with the rich and famous, never doing squat on your own. You chose the words to define your political persona anew. And, by God, it worked. Bubba checked "Bush-Quayle."
Ha, ha, ha. It felt very nice to be president, and you certainly didn't want to be tied down to any asinine campaign rhetoric. Bob Teeter told the president that surveys said most Americans didn't expect Bush to keep his promise anyway. Hell, why worry? Once elected, Bush simply discarded the pledge as easily as a party platform.
How can this mean anything other than: I'd rather wheel and deal with the Democrats in Congress than keep my word to you. Republican revisionism claims the deal was date rape: Sure we talked to the Democrats, but nothing would have happened if they hadn't forced their way on the president.
Nonsense. The White House consummated their budget affair in plain view of the public and with every waking member of the Republican congressional delegation dialing 911. The great majority of Republicans in Congress voted against the president—the deal passed with Democratic votes—prompting Sununu to go storming around the Hill threatening to use Bush to campaign against disloyal Republicans in the primaries.
The Democrats did want to raise your taxes, just as Bush said in New Orleans, but with Gramm-Rudman in place and a Republican in the White House, that could have been tough. Bush only had to veto each offensive fiscal measure burped out by Congress, and let Gramm-Rudman kick in with across-the-board spending cuts. The interest groups would yelp, but that's why Bush said he wanted to be The Man: He'd hold the line against the big spenders.
No new taxes? You fell for that? Personally, he'd rather make a little trade with his friends down Pennsylvania Avenue.
The most amazing administration defense is that the Democrats in Congress swindled our president. The budget deal was "raise taxes now in exchange for spending cuts later," and those dastardly Demos broke their word. Forget the fact that this line of argument concedes that Bush reneged on the taxpayers so as to cut a deal with politicians who then stiffed him—a damning indictment of his competence to act as a fiduciary for the American public. The whole nonsense lampoons presidential leadership.
The Republicans plead that the Democrats are sneaky, and poor Bush thought they could be trusted to cut spending. Cut spending? Democrats? This exhibits the level of naivete for which Jimmy Carter is still a national joke. (Invade Afghanistan? The Soviets would never!) Arguing for the re-election of a man who was so easily snookered on the grounds that America needs experience in office is so absurd as to swallow itself.
Note carefully that compromising with Congress was fundamental strategy in a Bush administration that loved playing the nonconfrontational good cop (much warmer and fuzzier than those ideologues under Reagan). Alas, George Bush had been a fiscal-policy flip-flopper way back, from "voo-doo economics" (1980), to supply-sider (1988), to tax-hike compromiser (1990). By 1992, battered by Pat Buchanan and plummeting in the polls, Bush again grafted supply-side rhetoric to his public-finance metaphysics in his State of the Union speech, issuing a stem 90-day deadline for Congress to act on various tax-cutting and deregulatory measures.
The bogus deadline passed without a peep on April 20 or April 28, something like that (see, you don't remember either), despite a he-man threat that if Congress ignored him "the battle will be joined." With his Houston acceptance oration, Bush has announced his vehement pledge to veto all over-budget spending bills, when in fact he had signed into law such an appropriation only the previous week. The new George Bush, or just another rotation of a multifaced hologram?
All of which puts poor George Bush in a sour re-election pickle. He flicked away his store of political capital and plunged (by his own administration's admission now) the U.S. economy into recession. What should be his slogan this year: "Read My Lips: No More New Taxes"? Should he hunt for a technical defense of his reneging, like: "I Said No New Taxes (We Just Raised Your Old Ones)"? Or, should he go on an honesty trip and come clean with: "What Are the Chances I'd Lie to You Twice"?
It is ironic that the Democrats continue to fume over "slick" Republican campaign tactics, because 1992 features a reverse mismatch. Slick Willie has ever-so-craftily redone his party so as to gut the Reagan Democrat exodus that laid his predecessors so low, while Dull George runs an almost buffoonish effort. With the monumental collapse of communism, he did preside over the greatest American conquest, and with the hard strike at Iraqi aggression he brought home a gold medal in international diplomacy (not to mention real-world combat). The guy is a commander-in-chief. By the scoring rules of politics he should be given beaucoup credit.
But by the same token, Bush squandered his historic chances, failing to see anything in America that needed fixing when 88-percent approval ratings gave him carte blanche to pursue an ambitious domestic agenda. The world that Bush made safe for tax cutting, deregulation, and free trade is a wonderful place; Mr. President, how about cultivating those policies here at home?
Reflexively, George Bush recoiled from pursuing any agenda; people from Bush's neighborhood do not engage in such grubbiness as pushing agendas. His regal blood preferred to rise above the ugliness of ideology; better to remain at a safe distance from the public-policy trenches. Now he is cast adrift, grasping at themes, slogans, fixers, and elixirs 3.67 years into an administration he once called "kinder and gentler."
The Republicans must be haunted by what might have been. If only Bush had lost to Michael Dukakis in 1988, how fat the GOP would be sitting today. With the House banking, pay-raise, and post-office scandals, Jim Wright and Tony Coelho and Alan Cranston cowering in shame, the economy puttering and sputtering, and coming after eight years of Reagan's supply-side fun and games, the 1992 reapportionment would have given the GOP its first real chance in three generations for national-majority status. But no.
George won, asking nothing of his mandate and quickly reneging on what he had promised. He ran without voicing any interest in the Republican Congress he now claims he needed to get anything done, and in fact his party, incredibly, lost seats upon his 1988 election. According to national survey data, Republicans have now seen all of their impressive registration gains during the 1980s vanish.
Four more years? Only a Congressional Democrat could love that. I'm not telling you how to vote, but…if you'd like to do something really nice for your Republican friends, invest in their future. Hold your nose doubly tight and vote Clinton-Gore in '92.
Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "George of the Bungle".