James A. Baker III rode out of Texas to join the posse of would-be Republican presidential candidates last night and delivered several thrusts at the Clinton administration in all its more vulnerable places.
Speaking to about 150 members of the Maryland GOP at the Hyatt Regency Hotel at Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the former secretary of state under George Bush faulted President Clinton generally for trying to avoid the presidential responsibility of conducting the nation's foreign policy, and specifically for his failures in Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia.
Every administration inherits problems, he said, but does not inevitably worsen them. This, he asserted, is what the Democrat in the White House has allowed to happen.
In Bosnia Mr. Baker criticized Mr. Clinton for "threatening to use force [against the Serbs], then backing off."
In Somalia the administration expanded the original mission of feeding the starving, he said, "to nation building and chasing warlords."
In Haiti, he said, the president "sent an American warship then ordered it to turn tail because of some thugs on the dock."
The images from that experience, he said, "played into the hands of would-be isolationists in this country" and diminished American credibility abroad.
"Our allies sensed indecision. Our adversaries smelled opportunity."
Although Mr. Baker gave President Clinton credit for his efforts to encourage democracy in Russia, for his policy in the Middle East and for pushing the North American Free Trade Agreement, he said that Mr. Clinton was fundamentally mistaken in his belief that the president could spend all his time on domestic affairs and allow foreign policy to be relegated to a back burner.
Turning to the economy, Mr. Baker, who served as Treasury secretary under Ronald Reagan, was less generous.
"Basic economic policy is simply totally flawed," he said. "The deficit-reduction package is nothing of the sort. It is a tax bill masquerading as a deficit-reduction package."
The way to reduce the deficit, Mr. Baker insisted, was to reduce government spending. "You don't reduce deficits by raising taxes."
"It should come as no surprise that the economy is not robust," he added. "You don't create jobs by taxing the job creators."
Mr. Baker credited Mr. Clinton for raising the issue of health care to the top of the national agenda; he described it as "the most important domestic debate since the 1930s." But he expressed suspicion of the president's plan.
Though confessing he had not read it, Mr. Baker said the plan "has big government written all over it. It means another bureaucracy."
He faulted the proposed financing mechanisms of the plan, specifically taxes on alcohol and tobacco.
"I have to tell you, tobacco and alcohol taxes are just smoke and mirrors."
He said he suspected that some employers were laying people off out of fear they would have to pay greater health care costs, thus contributing to unemployment.
Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, the 2nd District Republican, introduced Mr. Baker to the Republican diners -- each paid $125 for the privilege -- as the man responsible for many of the foreign policy successes of the Reagan and Bush presidencies.