Posted on June 15, 1992 in Washington Watch

The President’s continuing downward slide in the polls and the repeated errors made by his campaign in recent weeks have even his strongest supporter’s asking “What’s happening to George Bush?”

The picture emerging from June’s polling data looks bleak for the President. Every major poll now shows Ross Perot leading in a three-way race with an average of 37%. George Bush has slipped to second place with 32% and Bill Clinton is dead last with barely 25%.

In the all-important state-by-state polling, Perot is leading in 15 states, which would yield him 227 electoral votes. Bush also leads in 15 states, but they are smaller in terms of population and would give him only 156 electoral votes. Clinton is leading in only two states which would give him just 16 electoral votes.

More disturbing to President, however, must be the fact that for the first time some of these same polls show Bill Clinton beating George Bush in two-way race!

While this polling data is, of course, both unofficial and preliminary in nature, it does point out the very real problems the President is having this election year. He is experiencing what is being called a “free fall” in public approval and confidence in his Administration.

The public’s approval rating of George Bush is down to the range of 30% to 37%, and their disapproval rating is up to 60%. Exactly one year ago in June of 1991 George Bush’s approval rating was 72% and the disapproval rating was 18%.

Fewer than two in ten Americans feels that the country is on the right course, and more Americans blame the President for this state of affairs than they blame the congress.

Compounding this slide in public confidence is the fact that the President is being virtually assaulted in the press, and his campaign is making daily mistakes that hamper his reelection effort. The most recent statistics on campaign coverage from the Center for Media and Public Affairs show that only 18% of all the stories about George Bush which appear in the media are positive, while over 65% of the coverage of Ross Perot and Bill Clinton has been favorable.

Stories appear every day about what is now being dubbed “Iraq-gate”, i.e., the Administration’s tilt toward Iraq in the year’s 1987-1990. The congressional hearings which are now being called for on this matter are embarrassing the Administration, which has the practical affect of prohibiting its use of the Gulf War victory as a campaign theme.

Negative stories are also appearing which allege irregularities in campaign finances and about personal profits by Bush’s family from business dealings developed through their government connection.

In the face of all these attacks the Administration has been virtually silent, leading some supporters to suggest that the President is making the same error that Dukakis made in 1988. By allowing the opposition to define the themes and terms of debate means that, by definition, Bush will lose the debate. `He who defines the terms wins the argument.’ This is how Dukakis lost in 1988, and George Bush appears to be doing the same thing in 1992.

Even in international affairs, the Administration’s strength, they seem to be making some mistakes. The trip to Japan in April was a public relations disaster for the President, and the current trips to Panama and Brazil appear to be faring no better.

In fact, the Rio Environmental conference is a case study in how the President’s campaign has failed to develop a strategy to fight back. In the months leading up to the Rio summit, environmental organizations and the press have been attacking the Administration’s refusal to endorse their goals in Rio.

The President’s response to his critics was late in coming and extremely timid. After a few weeks of unanswered attacks the President stated that his main opposition to the proposed Rio agreements was that it would be detrimental to the U.S. economy and cost U.S. worker’s jobs. Members of the Administration and their spokespersons repeated this line for several days without elaboration, then dropped it entirely. Then, in the heat of battle, the President called a press conference (which I will discuss below) not to discuss Rio and environmental issues, but instead to deal with a proposal before the congress to achieve a balanced budget.

As the attention of the world and the U.S. press was focused on Rio, the President missed an opportunity to address the issue of the moment. His stand on the environment and the Rio treaties is in fact a good one—but it has not been fully and dramatically spelled out to the American people.

The press conference on the balanced budget proposal was a disaster for two other reasons as well. First, because the balanced budget issue was political and not timely, the three major networks refused to cover it. This meant that what was supposed to provide a major lift for the President would reach many fewer people than necessary.

Second, the President’s advisors did not adequately prepare him for the conference by failing to inform him that the next day the Labor Department would issue figures showing that unemployment had risen during the months of May to an eight-year high. Though Bush tried to paint a rosy picture of the economy, the next day’s headlines read “Jobs Scarce Despite Bush Optimism” and “Gloomy May Figures Rebut Bush’s Claim of Solid Recovery”. One Republican analyst suggested that the President’s advisors “were afraid to give him the bad news so they let him go on and make a fool of himself.”

Republican analysts are concerned that mistakes of this type should not happen in an election year. All of this led to an extraordinary amount of press coverage in recent weeks asking questions about “What’s wrong inside the White House and the Bush campaign?”

The stories began two weeks ago with comments from the chair of Bush’s reelection campaign Robert Mosbacher allegedly suggesting to the President that he drop current White House Chief of Staff Sam Skinner and replace him with Secretary of State James Baker. While it is common knowledge that the Bush campaign is “the campaign that hasn’t started”, the inability of the White House to coordinate with the campaign to develop themes, to plan strategy and to focus resources is a news story.

These stories continue to be fed by disgruntled White House and campaign staff who busily point the finger at one another. This constant back biting is evidence of a campaign out of control and a serious morale problem in the Administration. This has in turn has increased hope that Baker will come to take over the campaign.

To the same extent that the world has come to appreciate the skill of Jim Baker, to Republican party operatives he has assumed the mantle of a hero. He is credited as the man who saved the 1988 Bush campaign and also the success of Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign in 1984. Some in the Republican party are looking for him to come forward once again to save the day.

The conventional wisdom expressed in most accounts is that during his tenure as White House Chief of Staff, John Sununu was the “bad cop” for the President—he may have alienated many leading Republicans and other Administration officials, but at least he got the job done. Skinner, who at first was praised for his new approach and less combative style now appears to be unable to get control of machinery of the White House operation to make it work effectively.

Baker, in contrast to these two men, is regarded as an organizational minded and focused professional who can turn the Administration from its sluggish and defensive posture toward a more sharply defined and articulated campaign strategy.

Whether Baker does this or not, what is clear from all the stories that have appeared in recent weeks is that there is a real debate going on within and between the Administration and the President’s reelection campaign. They know something is wrong and that is the first step toward making a change and repairing the damage. Whether the solution is Baker or an entirely new team or a more directed and aggressive approach designed by the old team, the Bush people have apparently received their wake-up calls and now know it’s time to move.

All of the assumptions that the Bush campaign believed would work in this election year have so far proved to be false.

Simple economic recovery is not and will not be enough to bring the President’s popularity up. The malaise in the country is deeper than that.

Unlike 1988, this will not be a two-way race between a Republican and a Democrat. Perot will not fade. He is a creature constructed from the unrest in this country, and as long as it is there, he or someone like him will be there. While Perot’s popularity has a ceiling (because there are faithful Republicans and Democrats who will not abandon their parties), it also has a floor. Even is he is attacked and bashed in the media, he will retain a strong level of support for some frustrated “angry at Washington” voters.

The Bush/Quayle campaign cannot wait until September to begin. The damage done to George Bush by six Democrats, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot and the press has taken a real toll. By not aggressively fighting back and defining themes and seizing control of the debate, George Bush is appearing indecisive and lacking strong convictions. This has emboldened his opponents and created a vacuum which his challengers continue to fill with their own themes, more attacks and negative stories.

Interestingly enough, it is Vice President Dan Quayle who has gone on the offensive with a strong and traditional Republican theme of supporting family values. He is working to shore up the Republican conservative base and to protect it from further erosion. And while Quayle is receiving the scorn of Perot, Clinton and some members of the press for his attacks on a “valueless Hollywood”, he has defined some important themes that may signal an offensive against Perot and Clinton in the public debate.

It is clear that the White House now understands that it must make changes. President Bush has gone through a number of ups and downs over the past four years. From a 1988 pre-convention “weak wimp Reagan-understudy” to victorious candidate. From a rocky first two years during which he appeared as weak and indecisive (and culminating in his budget agreement which was very unpopular among Republicans) to the strong and determined Commander in Chief of the Gulf War. Once again, Bush is being seen as indecisive and without direction.

Can he recapture his leadership image one more time? That is the question. Republicans are looking to the White House and the President’s campaign, hoping for an affirmative answer.

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