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Read My Hips

Bush's flip-flops add new confusion to the budget battle and raise doubts about his domestic leadership

Time cover

By Dan Goodgame/Washington

(TIME, October 22, 1990) -- The question is perhaps best left to psychiatrists, but last week Congressmen, Senators, White House aides and millions of Americans were trying to answer it. How could George Bush -- the World War II bomber pilot, the Commander in Chief who invaded Panama and ousted its dictator, the leader who dispatched more than 200,000 U.S. troops to the Persian Gulf and ably assembled an international alliance to confront Saddam Hussein -- be so wishy-washy?

As Congress squabbled in search of a budget, Bush during three dizzying days switched his position at least four times on the key question of what additional taxes the most affluent citizens should pay to help reduce the budget deficit. On Tuesday morning he declared that he might accept raising income taxes on the wealthy in exchange for his long-sought cut in taxes on capital gains. That afternoon he backpedaled under pressure from Senate Republicans: White House aides announced that Bush did not favor pursuing such a deal. Two days later, facing countervailing pressure from House Republicans, Bush reopened the possibility. Then about an hour later he closed it again.

Asked to clarify his position as he jogged in a St. Petersburg baseball park, Bush pointed to his backside and gibed, "Read my hips." Then, literally and metaphorically, he abandoned the playing field. He later said he would wait for Congress to clear up the confusion he had helped engender. Bush's vacillation confounded his allies and delighted his opponents. Newspapers across the country bannered headlines studded with words like WAFFLE, RETREAT, BLINK and ZIG-ZAG. Bush's approval rating, which stood in the mid-70s only a month ago, plummeted 10 to 15 points. It was, said a senior Administration official, "the worst week of his presidency." The outpouring of criticism reflected long-held doubts about Bush's approach to domestic affairs. G.O.P. strategists complained that the President's flip-flops had weakened the widespread perception that Congress is more responsible for the budget fiasco than the White House. Complained a top adviser to the President: "We've managed to change the subject from 'Can the Congress pass a budget?' to 'Why isn't the President leading?' "

Moreover, by concentrating on cutting the capital-gains tax, which would benefit mainly the few Americans who earn more than $200,000 a year, the President strengthened the impression that his highest domestic priority is taking care of the rich. Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster, gleefully observed that "George Bush has two Achilles' heels -- 'rich' and 'wimp' -- and managed to expose both of them on the same day."

The President and his men naturally downplayed the political damage. Bush told reporters that "these things come and go. The best thing, we get a budget deal, we get a good deal, and people will forget the name calling." But when a budget deal is passed, Bush may have little influence over it, and will have trouble dispelling his image of weakness.

Another danger was that Bush's performance would rattle the confidence of allies in the anti-Saddam coalition and strengthen the Iraqi leader's resolve against an enemy he perceived as wounded. So far the European and Arab leaders in the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq believe that the President's domestic problems have little effect on his conduct of foreign policy. Bush's advisers insist that there is a "fire wall" between domestic and foreign policy, not only in the President's thinking but also in that of the Congress and the public.

So why has Bush inflicted so much unnecessary damage on himself? Part of the answer is that he has never had firm convictions on domestic issues; over the years he has altered his stance on abortion, civil rights and even supply-side economics when it was politically expedient to do so. Bush has always regarded domestic policy as "deep doo-doo," not to be stepped in if at all possible. Foreign affairs, on the other hand, he regards as his strongest suit. As Bush acknowledged at a White House press conference last week, "When you get a problem with the complexities that the Middle East has now, and the gulf has now, I enjoy trying to put the coalition together and keep it together. . . . I can't say I just rejoice every time I go up and talk to [House Ways and Means chairman Dan] Rostenkowski about what he's going to do on taxes."

Any President faces fewer constraints in foreign policy than at home, and many have been known to seek solace from the slings and arrows of homegrown politics in its embrace. But what particularly drags Bush down in domestic policy is the limits of his leadership style and the key lieutenants on whom he relies.

Bush's patrician approach -- gradually building trust among other members of an elite and cutting private deals with them -- has often worked effectively on the foreign front. But it does not deliver as well in domestic policy, where myriad officials, interest groups and ordinary citizens demand to have their say, both before any proposed solution is made public and afterward. When Bush tries to communicate with a TV audience, he often lacks confidence. More important, except when he is campaigning for himself, Bush shrinks from framing options in a stark and persuasive manner that can force people to make a choice. He often speaks of using the "bully pulpit" to get his way, but to him it means little more than "telling people how deeply you feel" instead of knocking heads together to get things done.

For more than a year Rostenkowski, one of Bush's closest friends in Congress, has pleaded with the President to "tell the American people that if we don't balance our budget, we're going to be No. 2 in the world, and the American people will say 'The hell we are!' If you challenge them, they will accept whatever sacrifice you say is necessary."

Bush was unmoved by Rostenkowski's appeal, as he was last month when some advisers urged him to forcefully exploit the crisis in the gulf as an opportunity to make progress on the budget. Bush did give a televised speech linking the two problems, but rather than call on all Americans to sacrifice, he proposed nearly $30 billion in new tax breaks and left the tough choices to Congress.

After reaching a budget agreement with congressional leaders, Bush delivered a tepid prime-time address on Oct. 2 asking Americans to call their lawmakers in support of the deal. Instead, the overwhelming majority of calls and letters opposed it, with many complaining that its regressive approach -- with increased taxes on liquor, tobacco and gasoline, not to mention higher Medicare premiums -- would hurt the poor more than the rich.

Thus when Bush last week conceded that he might be willing to raise tax rates on the wealthiest Americans, many Republicans were flabbergasted that he had done it so casually, in the course of a 40-minute press conference. If he had issued a ringing proclamation that higher taxes on the rich were needed, says a senior Republican, "he could have explained that he felt it was necessary to make the package fair, and we would have got political credit for it. Instead, now we look like we're being dragged into raising the top rates and the Democrats are beating us to death as the party of the rich."

The President's effectiveness in domestic policy has been further hampered by the ham-handedness of White House chief of staff John Sununu. The former New Hampshire Governor, complains an official, "got ahead of the boss" when he sought to kill the deal combining a capital-gains tax cut with a higher income tax rate -- a mistake that did not go unnoticed by Bush. By failing to disguise his contempt for Congress, Sununu has managed to alienate even the Republicans whose support Bush desperately needs. Two weeks ago, Sununu dismissed Mississippi Senator Trent Lott's complaints about the original budget pact as "insignificant." In response Lott ordered up buttons with the words I'M INSIGNIFICANT, TOO. Sununu's remark was especially damaging because Lott has provided crucial votes to uphold three of the President's least popular vetoes. Says Lott: "They're going to need me again, real bad and real soon."

The White House budget strategy, such as it is, assumes that none of the factions that rejected the bipartisan budget accord will manage to put together a plan they like better and get it through the House and the Senate. After they fail, a senior White House official predicts, "everybody's got to be forced back to the middle" -- that is, back to an outline not very different from the defeated proposal. That could happen. But many members of both parties say they would not be pushed back to the regressive approach that was so resoundingly turned down two weeks ago. They would rather pass a budget that is both more equitable and practical -- if the President would only assume his responsibilities and lead them to it.

-- With reporting by Michael Duffy/Washington

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