Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
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There was a less obvious but important consequence of Bush’s above-the-battle stance, not only during the first of the campaign but much of the rest of his presidency. He failed to grasp what Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz observed during his Iran-contra testimony: that, in Washington, no fight is ever over, no issue ever finally settled. The Bush Administration didn’t understand the need not only to win its battles, but to defend its victories afterward. Thus it allowed the economic successes of the Reagan years to be belittled to the point where Bill Clinton and Al Gore could promise cheering audiences they would undo the economic damage of not just the previous four, but twelve years of “trickle-down” economics. The Persian Gulf War, perhaps the greatest single act of presidential leadership in four decades, was allowed to be dismissed by the President’s enemies as merely a war to overcome a tyrant the Bush Administration had “created” by giving him illicit aid. Similar arguments were made against the overthrow of Manuel Noriega. James Reston even wrote in the New York Times that Bush, having captured Noriega, didn’t “know what to do with him.” At the time, of course, Noriega was being prosecuted, successfully it turned out, for drug trafficking. Such criticisms went unanswered, as if the President and his aides thought that because they were balderdash they would collapse of their own weight.
A word is in order here about the news media. It is not a monolith and its biases do not necessarily control the coverage of a political campaign. But during critical periods in this one, anti-Bush media sentiment was obvious and dominant. For example, the harsh attacks on Bush and Quayle at the Democratic Convention by, among others, Maxine Waters and Jesse Jackson were treated as nothing special. But the fiery attacks on Clinton and the Democrats during the GOP convention by Pat Buchanan and others were treated as a sort of orgy of intolerance. No one noted that Buchanan, who had after all tried to defeat Bush, obviously did not speak for him. The media’s defenders argue that, after the rough treatment Bill Clinton got on the Gennifer Flowers case and his draft record, no one can say he was treated favorably. But he was. After the primary season, the Flowers case was barely mentioned again. Never mind the allegations about the state job she got and the other woman who was allegedly passed over in Flowers’s favor. Never mind that John Tower was deemed by the Democrats who control the U.S. Senate to be unfit for Bush’s cabinet for the very kind of alleged peccadilloes that did not disqualify Bill Clinton for the presidency.
New revelations and questions about Clinton’s draft record were duly reported, but so were charges about Bush’s role in the Iran-contra affair, whether they were new or not. The most conspicuous example was the play accorded the re-indictment of former defense secretary Weinberger on the Friday before the election. Released with the indictment was a copy of one of many Weinberger notes on the case which formed part of the prosecution’s evidence against him. It is not uncommon for a sample of the evidence to be attached to an indictment, but it is not an invariable practice, either. What’s more, the Independent Counsel could have chosen any of the many other notes Weinberger made. The charge against him is that he denied to Congress that any such notes existed. But the news media were utterly uninterested in why the prosecutors chose this particular document to make public five days before the election.
The note itself seemed to say that then Vice President Bush had attended a January 1986 meeting at which Weinberger and George Shultz had made plain their vehement opposition to what they regarded as a straight exchange of arms for hostages. Except for the wording, there was nothing new about the note. The meeting and what was said at it had been known of for some time. What’s more, while the note implied Bush had been at the meeting, it did not actually say so; Bush has said he attended the meeting but missed part of it.
It is part of his story that while he knew Weinberger and Shultz opposed the arms sales, he did not realize the depth of their opposition, because he had not heard all they said about it. For example, Bush had been at the Army-Navy game during a meeting the previous month when Weinberger and Shultz had objected strongly to the arms sales, hence Bush’s contention that he was “out of the loop.” The President has never denied that he supported the arms sales, and that he knew that hostages were expected to be released as a sort of side benefit of improved relations with Iran. What he denies is that he saw the deals at the time as straight arms-for-hostages swaps. He may or may not be telling the truth about that, but it is the same story he has told for years, and because it deals with his state of mind it is unlikely ever to be proved or disproved. The media, however, gave a huge ride to the Weinberger note, treating it as new information, which it was not, and reporting that it flatly contradicted Bush’s version of events, which it did not. The story dominated campaign coverage for two days and broke whatever momentum the President had in the final days of the race. The coverage mirrored almost precisely the claims about the note made by Bill Clinton, who called a news conference to make the most of it. It came at a particularly opportune moment for Governor Clinton, since he was under withering assault from Bush about his character.
To be haunted by the arms-for-hostages issue must have been an especially bitter irony for George Bush, under whom all U.S. hostages had come home, without any funny business with Iran or anyone else. Yet here again was a case where the luckless Bush was in no position to boast of his achievement. To do so could have tempted terrorists to snatch some more Americans. To be sure, Bush had other good foreign policy news to proclaim, and he certainly tried. He spoke repeatedly of the end of the Cold War, of little children who no longer must live in fear of a superpower nuclear confrontation. He spoke often of Operation Desert Storm and of stopping Iraqi aggression. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision what condition the U.S. economy would be in by now were Saddam Hussein still astride the world’s oil artery, occupying Kuwait and either threatening or controlling Saudi Arabia. But the victory over Saddam had seemed, finally, both easy and incomplete And the end of the Cold War, instead of helping Bush politically, seemed instead to eliminate one of the reasons for keeping Cold War–era leaders like him in office.
All these things contributed to Bush’s demise. In the end, he still might have been re-elected had the economic recovery that had seemed more than once to be underway actually come. But it didn’t, and the effect on the public’s mood and the President’s popularity was devastating. When he did finally attempt to address the issue, his credibility had been deeply eroded by his broken tax promise and by the long period in which he seemed oblivious to the economy’s condition. When he talked of his plans to stimulate growth, they made little impact on voters correctly skeptical that he could get them through Congress. His complaints about the “gridlock Congress” only reinforced that impression. Besides, the President never seemed fully convinced himself that legislative intervention was what the economy needed. And he might have been right. So he ended up running for re-election in hard times he had been slow to recognize, with a program he didn’t seem deeply to believe in. The hard times themselves might have been enough to seal his, fate. With the other political baggage he had to carry, they proved overwhelming. The final irony is that as the last votes were counted, the economy appeared at long last to be picking up. Just in time to allow Bill Clinton to usher in George Bush’s recovery.
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Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online