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A November Chill For Bush


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A NOVEMBER CHILL FOR BUSH

Are voters angry about a stagnant economy and politicians' inability to do anything about it -- or a host of other problems? You bet. On Nov. 5, Americans stormed to the polls and sent the White House and politicians everywhere an inescapable message: Start delivering results, or you're out on your ear.

In recession-racked Pennsylvania, appointed Democratic Senator Harris Wofford, whose campaign was an outsider's unrelenting attack on Washington's unconcern with the problems of ordinary folk, stunned former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, a respected former two-term governor. In New Jersey, Republicans seized control of the statehouse for the first time in two decades as voters took revenge on Democratic Governor James J. Florio for raising taxes. And in Mississippi, Republican businessman Kirk Fordice dumped Harvard-educated Governor Ray Mabus with antigovernment attacks on welfare and racial quotas. Only in Washington State, where voters crushed a term-limitation initiative, could the ins find comfort.

The anti-incumbent sentiment has been building since last fall. But an economy that stays stubbornly sluggish despite President Bush's assurances that a recovery is under way has put voters in a frightened, surly mood. It doesn't matter if you are Democrat or Republican, voters seem to be saying: If you're part of the political Establishment, you're the problem.

NEW BALL GAME. That's bad news for Congress. But it's worse for Bush, the ultimate Washington insider. Bush pollster Robert M. Teeter's numbers show that public confidence in the President's economic stewardship has plunged. And other pollsters are finding that, by a 2-to-1 margin, voters think the country is headed in the wrong direction. A 1992 campaign that once looked like a triumphal march to reelection has suddenly become a contest. "We have an electorate that wants to tear down the temple," says Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute, a middle-of-the-road Democratic think tank. Adds Democratic strategist Mike McCurry: "People aren't into marginal tinkering anymore. They want change, and they want it now."

The sudden sense of vulnerability has set off hysteria in the Bush camp. A simmering debate among Cabinet members over economic strategy has become an ugly public fight, with Housing & Urban Development Secretary Jack F. Kemp still agitating for stimulative legislation after Bush decided not to press the issue this year. Aides are blaming each other for the defeat of Thornburgh, whom Bush had personally pushed into the Senate race. And meetings of Bush political advisers have become what one participant describes as "a dozen guys sitting around screaming at each other."

Even the ever prudent Bush has hit the panic button. He stunned his own aides -- and embarrassed the Japanese government -- by abruptly postponing an important late-November Asian tour. The stated reason: Bush wants to keep an eye on Congress as it wraps up the year. But lawmakers plan to be gone before the scheduled start of the Asia trip. Instead, the President will put finishing touches on an economic package, consisting mostly of a capital-gains tax cut and other warmed-over proposals, which he plans to offer after Congress adjourns for the year.

Bush seems to be looking for protection against increasingly strident Democratic charges that he's too concerned with foreign policy. But it's not clear he can help himself by ostentatiously staying home. Presidential hand-wringing only focuses more public attention on the problem while highlighting the Administration's inability to solve it.

'PURE HELL.' With little prospect for fiscal stimulus before next spring, the White House has turned up the heat on Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. On Nov. 6, the Fed came through with a half-percentage-point cut in the discount rate, to 4.5% (page 36). Bush advisers want more, and they won't be shy about asking for it. Senior aides believe the economy must show convincing signs of improvement by spring or Bush will be in serious trouble. "Alan Greenspan will determine the outcome of the next election," says Laurence Meyer, a St. Louis economic consultant. "He's all they've got at the White House."

For Democrats, the stagnant economy gives them an opening they could only dream about just a few months ago. Bush's crumbling legislative program already has emboldened Democratic lawmakers (page 57 37 ), and White House aides are bracing for what one calls "pure hell" on Capitol Hill next year as the campaign heats up. "There's going to be a contested Presidential race in 1992. We just confirmed it," says political consultant James Carville, who engineered Wofford's astounding come-from-behind victory in Pennsylvania. Top Bush campaign strategist Charles Black agrees: "If this economy stays bad, the President will have a close contest."

Still, Bush remains the favorite for next fall. For all his woes, the President retains a reserve of goodwill with the public -- witness his approval ratings, hovering at about 60%. And while voters may chafe at his neglect of domestic problems, they don't yet see a credible alternative in the untested field of Democratic contenders. Moreover, the public blames a Democratic Congress as much as the Republican President for the economic malaise. "The message that 'I'm not George Bush' isn't enough," says Democratic strategist William Galston. "Democrats need a program for growth that makes sense to average voters."

Out on the hustings, a field of six Democratic wannabes is test-marketing a variety of middle-class appeals. To tap voter rage, all style themselves as outsiders, bashing Washington and painting Bush as the defender of the status quo, out of touch with working Americans. "George Bush is the Herbert Hoover of the 1990s." says fiery populist Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

STILL TIME. But beyond the anti-Washington pose, there's little Democratic agreement on the most effective way to capsize Bush. Harkin calls for heavy new government spending on public works, national health insurance, research and development, education, child care programs, and transportation. His goal: providing long-term public and private investment to insure strong future growth. Other Democrats, such as Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton and Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, eschew big new spending programs, stressing a slimmed-down federal government and individual responsibility. "There will never be a government program for every problem," Clinton tells audiences. Kerrey has taken such rhetoric a step further, calling for a 50% reduction in Cabinet positions and sharp cuts in government spending. "We must begin by cleaning house in Washington," Kerrey says, echoing George Wallace's 1968 war cry.

The Democrats still have plenty of time to refine their message -- and to build one of their no-name contenders into a credible challenger. If that doesn't work, New York Governor Mario M. Cuomo, whose aides were heartened by the liberal Wofford's trouncing of Thornburgh, could barge into the race. For George Bush, the nightmare of Election Day, 1991, is a forceful reminder that despite his triumphs abroad, Americans are increasingly impatient with politicians' inattention to problems at home. Unless the economy shows signs of life soon, next year's campaign is going to be tougher than Bush ever imagined.

LESSONS FROM THE MIDTERM VOTE

INSIDERS OUT In Pennsylvania, appointed Democratic Senator Harris Wofford

trounced former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh with an "angry outsider"

message that stressed economic issues and the need for national health

care.

THE RACIAL CARD Political neophyte Kirk Fordice defeated Mississippi's

Democratic governor, Ray Mabus, by repeatedly invoking the q-word: quotas.

Once again, racial politics served the GOP well.

DEATH BY TAXES Republicans seized control of both houses of the New Jersey

legislature by stoking antitax resentment toward Democratic Governor

Jim Florio and his policies that tax the middle class to help the poor

TERMS AND CONDITIONS With a push from House Speaker Tom Foley, voters

defeated an initiative that would have limited the service of House and

Senate members from the state of Washington

DATA: BW.Douglas A. Harbrecht and Howard Gleckman in Washington


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