Posted on August 10, 1992 in Washington Watch

One week before the Republican National Convention, world events may be dealing George Bush the cards he needs to improve his chances against a still-surging Bill Clinton.

The continuing slaughter in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Saddam Hussein’s latest acts of defiance against United Nations investigation teams, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s visit to the United States are giving Bush the chance to grab headlines and demonstrate his leadership skills in foreign affairs.

What Bosnia-Herzegovina, Saddam Hussein and Rabin all a have in common is that they take headlines away from domestic issues—especially the economy—and give Bush the opportunity to be President. All Clinton can do is sit on the sidelines and offer his own opinions or advice.

Until now, foreign policy concerns have not played well as campaign issues in this election year, unlike previous years in which this was always a strong suit for the Republican Party. In fact, a sustained effort by the press and politicians combined to focus attention on domestic issues and almost made foreign affairs a dirty word. The “Put America First” campaigns of Democrat Tom Harkin, Republican Pat Buchanan and Independent Ross Perot played on and strengthened the strong negatives against President Bush for the emphasis he places on world affairs.

While Bill Clinton has no real foreign policy experience, he was the only Democrat who ran on a platform committed to a strong national defense and an active world leadership role for the United States. Nevertheless, the Clinton campaign ultimately deferred to the prevailing mood in the Democratic Party; thus foreign policy concerns were virtually ignored during the Democratic National Convention last month. One prominent and somewhat liberal commentator noted that Clinton’s very long 4500 address to the convention, only 141 words dealt with foreign affairs. Similarly, only a small fraction of Gore’s 2500 word speech touched on this theme.

Even now when Clinton speaks on foreign policy questions, he sounds ambivalent and conditions nearly every declarative sentence. He seems to be more comfortable attacking George Bush’s position than in defining his own. For example, during a recent address regarding the slaughter of Bosnians he noted that the killings were terrible, but said, “I’m concerned with American lives: more Americans are being killed every day on our own streets.” After that uncalled-for detour, he went on to chide the President for not acting more aggressively to use force in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

It is somewhat ironic that as Clinton attacks Bush and attempts to show himself as stronger and more decisive than Bush, he may actually be helping set the stage for the President’s comeback.

As Bush demonstrates firmness against Saddam’s refusal to allow U.N. inspector to enter the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture, Clinton attacks Bush for allowing Saddam to remain in power. In effect, he is legitimizing an attack on Iraq. While Bush pledges to support for U.N. relief efforts in Bosnia-Herzegovina but suggests that he is not yet ready to use force, Clinton argues his suggestion that force may be necessary, thereby opening the door for the President to act.

And while Clinton professes strong support for Israel, Rabin’s visit to the President’s summer home in Kennebunkport is almost universally recognized as, in part, a thank-you for George Bush’s strong stand against Yitzhak Shamir. It is clearly understood that denying the loan guarantees to Shamir helped to make a Labor Victory possible in Israel.

Presidential action in any one or all of these issues will not necessarily, by itself, help George Bush’s reelection chances. What they represent, however, are opportunities for the President to regain lost ground in the important contest for public confidence in his leadership skills.

Commentators are fond of noting that Bush’s approval ratings have fallen to record lows. During the height of the Gulf War he had 90% approval ratings. Today, his rating has fallen to about 30%.

What these commentators fail to note is that just prior to the Gulf War Bush’s approval ratings were also low—around 50%. What is also important to note is that while the President’s over-all ratings climbed during the war as he became viewed as a strong a decisive commander-in-chief, his ratings climbed in areas in which there was no movement. Before the war, for example, Bush was given very poor marks for the handling of his economy. As his overall ratings soared because of the war, so too did his ratings as the steward of the economy, from a low of 36% to a high of 66% even though the economy changed very little. There was a transference of positives from his leadership in foreign affairs to his leadership in other areas.

What Bush’s opponents succeeded in doing in the aftermath of the war was to refocus attention away from the “victory in the Gulf” to the pressing needs here at home. The depressed economy was the major area where President could not win.

In fact, the conventional wisdom in 1988 was that whoever was elected in that year ran the risk of being a one-term president because of the expected prolonged economic downturn. Given the normal business cycle and the lack of cooperation between the Republican Administration and the Democratic Congress, Bush’s hands were tied and his efforts to improve the situation were impeded.

As news about the economy sank in and as the press and his political opponents attacked, public confidence in Bush’s leadership suffered. Unable to make changes, he faltered and appeared weak. Bush’s ratings fell and he became defined as a president lacking overall leadership. Even his genuine leadership accomplishment, the Gulf War, is now subjected to a revisionist interpretation of the events leading up to and the outcome of the war.

The polls are fickle—because the public mood is fickle. Even now, as Clinton appears strong and Bush appears weak, looking behind the polls one sees tremendous volatility in the public mood.

Over one-half of Americans polled express slight or lukewarm commitment to their candidate of choice for the Presidency. That means that although Bush is currently shown 20%-30% below Clinton in the polls, he has room to maneuver and Clinton’s lead can be cut.

During the primary season George Bush tried in vain to draw attention to the realm of foreign affairs. As his opponents called for “America First”, Bush defended his record and gave rather impressive speeches such as one he delivered in Houston in November of 1991. Having just returned from the Madrid peace Conference he noted that his opponents were attacking him for giving too much attention to world affairs. He countered by saying:

“Over there in Madrid I flipped in CNN and saw one of the Democratic leaders attack me for being at that important conference…. I’m going to keep trying to bring peace to the Middle East…. I have a responsibility to lead and I am not going to let democratic liberal carping keep me from leading…. We live in an integrated world. In that world, you can’t neatly divide foreign policy from domestic policy…. Anyone who says we should retreat into an isolationist cocoon is living in the last century, when we should be focused on the next century and the lives our children will lead. And they should know America’s destiny has always been to lead. And if I have anything to do with it, lead we will.”

But as important as these words were, in the absence of real crises or a genuine movement, they fell on deaf ears.

Now the reality of foreign affairs has reared its head and the dangers of ignoring the world hit home with sudden intensity. The daily horror of the slaughter in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the renewed brazenness of Saddam Hussein, and the possibility of real progress in the Middle East peace talks have given George Bush an opportunity to put his world view into action. This, coupled with the President’s new fighting mood and his new campaign themes of “leadership, trust and American values” may give him the pre-and post-convention boost necessary to even the score with Bill Clinton as the campaign enters the fall.

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