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Why Bush Won't Bench His Economics Team


Washington Outlook

WHY BUSH WON'T BENCH HIS ECONOMICS TEAM

Once again, angry conservative Republicans in Congress have their knives out. GOP officeholders, unlike their rank-and-file brethren, can't risk venting their fury at George Bush by backing rival Patrick J. Buchanan. So, right-wingers are taking out their frustration on the economic advisers whom they blame for urging Bush to fiddle while the economy--and his reelection prospects--burned.

Anger toward Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady and Budget Director Richard G. Darman has been building ever since Bush took their advice and accepted a tax hike in the 1990 budget deal--a decision Bush himself now calls a "mistake." Senator Connie Mack (R-Fla.) demands Brady's firing. House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has barred Treasury lobbyists from his office. Says Mack: "There's no credit available. Small business is being crushed. Nothing's changed. Nothing's happening."

The conservatives raise an interesting point: Why shouldn't Bush fire his advisers? The economy has grown at an annual rate of less than one-half percent during the Bush Presidency. And despite a big tax hike, the deficit has doubled.

LYING LOW. Bush's economic team was late forecasting the recession and completely missed the second dip of the slump last summer. The tight-money policies of Bush's Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan, probably exacerbated the recession. And the Bushies just can't convince voters that the President really cares about their economic struggles.

Since Bush's fiscal 1993 budget opened to pans from all the critics, Darman has been lying low. Brady, who is in charge of tax policy, has become the lightning rod. Conservatives hold the Treasury chief liable for watering down a capital-gains tax cut and waffling on real estate tax breaks. Conservatives find the Bush team ever eager to compromise with Democrats on tax hikes but never willing to lead the battle for tax cuts.

In many ways, Brady is an easy mark. He's been designated the Administration's chief economic spokesman, a role for which the inarticulate Treasury chief is particularly ill-suited. Brady's white-shoes demeanor and unreconstructed optimism look to many like lack of concern. When Brady points to an uptick in light-bulb sales and says, "I see robins on the lawn of our economy," he may be correctly spotting the early signs of recovery. But as public relations for a President whose approval ratings are plummeting, such comments sound out-of-touch.

Still, Bush seems prepared to brush off the assault on his economic team. One reason is Bush's intense loyalty. Brady is a close friend and has a job for as long as he wants it. And while Darman's relationship with the President has had its ups and downs, Bush still considers his budget chief an asset to the Administration.

Brady and Darman also please Bush by telling him what he wants to hear. Like many CEOs, Bush has surrounded himself with aides who reinforce his own view of the world. Bush is an optimist who's not very interested in economics. When the recovery waned last year, bad news was effectively banned from the White House, forestalling any policy action.

Last fall, Brady and Darman objected to a quick tax cut, betting that the economy--and Bush's political standing--would rebound by early spring. The recovery is behind schedule, and even if Brady and Darman were fired tomorrow, there is nothing Bush can now do to ensure a spurt of growth by Election Day. Giving in to demands for a purge would look desperate. Bush has wagered his Presidency that the Brady-Darman strategy is right. The hand has been dealt, and all he can do is wait to see how it plays out.Howard Gleckman EDITED BY STEPHEN H. WILDSTROM


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