The Bush puzzle: Why sacrifice popularity to gain nothing?


Washington-- In political terms, the most striking development in the budget impasse has been the way President Bush has been willing to fritter away his political capital without gaining anything in return.

Although no one knowledgeable about American politics would suggest that Mr. Bush has compromised his future, professionals here in both parties have been puzzled by his abrupt changes of course, his willingness to allow himself to be perceived as being influenced by various party factions and his stubborn insistence on a capital gains tax position that has handed the Democrats the issue of fairness in the tax code.

The president entered the critical stage of the negotiations on a budget to reduce the federal deficit with an imposing reservoir of public support -- approval ratings that regularly ran well over 70 percent, sometimes over 80 as a response to his actions in the Persian Gulf. But the latest surveys have shown approval of his performance dropping near 60 percent in most cases, down as low as 55 percent in one poll.

Those figures are still impressive for any politician. But the question that naturally arises is this one: What has Mr. Bush gained from spending 15 points or more of his popularity?

The answer is absolutely nothing.

On the contrary, Mr. Bush has seemed to allow himself to be drawn into a series of blunders that, taken together, project a picture of him as a political leader without a compass.

He came into office trumpeting his promise of "no new taxes" and stuck firmly to that position for 18 months before conceding that it was no longer possible.

The evidence of the polls indicated that the president got away with that reversal. The voters never believed there wouldn't be some tax increases anyway, and they were willing to accept his explanation that changed circumstances dictated a new look at the question.

Indeed, Mr. Bush was credited with showing leadership in taking that first essential step to set the stage for the extraordinary budget summit to settle the deficit question once and for all. Now that everything was "on the table," as he put it, it seemed there was a realistic prospect of an agreement.

Since that agreement was announced in the Rose Garden, however, it has been all downhill for Mr. Bush.

He was persuaded by his staff and fellow Republicans that it was necessary to use the bully pulpit of national television to sell the compromise, then was obliged to endure the embarrassment of seeing the plan killed in the face of his appeal and largely by members of his own party in the House.

Again, the question: What's the value in great per

sonal popularity if it cannot even be converted into effective pressure on a Newt Gingrich?

Then Mr. Bush compounded the appearance of weakness with his strange dance on his pet proposal for capital gains tax reduction and, more to the point, whether he would trade for it by approving an increase in the income tax rates levied against the wealthiest Americans.

In the morning he said he would go for it. In the afternoon, after meeting with Republican senators, the White House and several of those Republicans said no such trade-off was acceptable. The following morning Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole insisted that Mr. Bush had never changed his mind. And when Mr. Bush himself was asked about clearing up the confusion, he replied offhandedly: "Let Congress clear it up." The picture was one of George Bush once again playing the role of passive bystander -- much as he did earlier, for example, when Europe was being turned upside down in the summer of 1989.

More to the point politically, the combination of Mr. Bush's support for capital gains reductions and his apparently adamant refusal to approve higher tax rates for the wealthy seemed to put him firmly on the side of the Gingrich claque in the House and the most privileged Americans. Or, put another way, his stance seemed to change the issue to an argument over fairness and the progressivity of tax rates rather than over whether new taxes are needed. As House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt put it, "I think we've changed the question here from taxes to who pays the taxes."

Mr. Bush might still escape the whole situation politically intact. As Mr. Gephardt acknowledged, the final view of the president's performance "depends on the outcome" of the struggle to write a budget and perhaps even more on the state of the economy. But at the moment he has given the Democrats the upper hand on the touchy question of "who pays the taxes" that will inevitably be raised.

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