Republican Convention in Houston: Cynicism of 1988 returns to haunt Bush: The President has his last real chance to unite the party and boost a flagging campaign

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The Independent Online
TONIGHT George Bush returns home; to be precise to the two- bedroom Suite 721 in the Houstonian Hotel, which, despite his family house in Maine and his present dwelling at the White House, remains his official residence - at least for tax purposes. But even the carefully orchestrated festivities of a Republican convention will not disguise the grimness of the moment.

The setting is perfect. Like Houston in summer, the Republican Party these days is a steamy, thundery place, and Mr Bush is the man in the eye of the storm. Rarely can a political reputation anywhere have fallen so fast, so far. A bare 17 months ago, as President Saddam Hussein was driven from Kuwait, he was among the most popular presidents in modern American history. If the election were held tomorrow, he would lose by a landslide.

True, things can only get better. The last few weeks have been a study in bumbling ineptitude by the White House. That, presumably, will change now that James Baker, manager and strategist extraordinary, has moved back to the President's side. But 1992 is not 1988, when at a similar moment Mr Bush had all but eradicated Michael Dukakis's large lead.

Astonishingly, the massive 29 per cent advantage with which Bill Clinton left the Democratic convention in July is virtually intact. Of recent incumbents, only Jimmy Carter had a worse approval rating at this stage in proceedings than Mr Bush.

Today, as he struggles to avoid Mr Carter's fate, the President is paying the price of his shallow, cynical campaign of four years ago. The point then was not to lay out a coherent programme, but simply to get elected. In a devastating, just-published book, Marching In Place, the first real assessment of Mr Bush in office, Time magazine reporters Michael Duffy and Dan Goodgame recount an episode from 9 November 1988, the very morrow of his victory. He was asked what sort of mandate he had received. 'I don't know whether I want to use the word mandate,' the President- elect replied. A truer word was never spoken.

The Bush view was then, and remains to this day, that campaign politics are merely a squalid rite of passage every four years, a distasteful interruption to the utterly separate business of governing.

To defeat Mr Dukakis, he cobbled together a disparate coalition of conservatives, the monied and corporate elite, disaffected 'Reagan Democrats', and middle-class independents of the type who flocked to Paul Tsongas in his short-lived challenge to Mr Clinton earlier this year. Each required different assurances, but in 1988 such inconsistencies did not matter. Mr Bush was the anointed heir of an enormously popular president. Steady as we go was the order of the hour.

And for two-and-a-half years he got away with it. The status quo was not seriously touched, nor were the country's underlying problems addressed. When they at last did surface, in the shape of recession and the budget crisis of October 1990, Mr Bush's ratings plunged, only to be inflated to dizzying heights by the Gulf war four months later. By autumn 1991, however, the bubble had burst. Military triumph was forgotten, and the 1988 coalition was coming apart at the seams.

Of its four components, only the second, the President's natural 'country club' constituency of old money and big business, remains unequivocally his. True conservatives were appalled by his reneging on his 'No New Taxes' pledge to secure the compromise that ended the budget impasse. For want of anything better, they will back Mr Bush again, but more grudgingly than before.

The same cannot, however, be said of Reagan Democrats, who have borne the brunt of the recession, or of the independents swayed in 1988 by the Bush promise of 'a kinder, gentler America', of Reaganism without the rough edges. Instead they have seen a fitful rightward drift on issues ranging from crime to civil rights - and abortion, which could yet turn Houston into the most divisive Republican convention in years.

At which point, to the almost pathetic relief of a terrified party, enter Mr Baker. But even a miracle worker has his limits. For one thing, the candidate is not him but Mr Bush. It is the President, not Mr Baker, who will be debating with Mr Clinton: voters will be judging him on his proven record, not the vague undertakings and seamy attacks which sufficed to see off the hapless Mr Dukakis.

Above all, when four voters in five believe the US is 'on the wrong track', Mr Bush has yet to show why he deserves a second term. 'The status quo,' one leading Republican acidly remarked the other day, 'is Latin for 'the mess we're in'.'

Yet there has been little sign that the President has anything new to offer, beyond a pained incomprehension of what has happened. He talks fiercely about 'going into campaign mode', but the convictions seem as few and as ephemeral as ever.

What would he do if re-elected, he was asked last month. 'I'll do what needs to be done,' was the reported answer. This week, with the nation watching, Mr Bush will have to be more specific. As he took his leave of the State Department last week, Mr Baker spoke vaguely of a 'conservative agenda'. On Thursday, in the acceptance speech that may settle his political fate, his President has perhaps a last chance to flesh that agenda out.

In the remaining 78 days of the campaign, the Republicans can be relied upon to draw a lurid picture of Mr Clinton as a feckless and inexperienced liberal. But it is Mr Bush, not the Arkansas Governor, who must re-invent himself for his countrymen. On every important comparison, with the exception of foreign policy, he trails behind Mr Clinton - even on such traditional Republican themes as character, trustworthiness and strengthening 'American values'.

When the chips are down, Mr Bush is never a man to write off, least of all in this most volatile of election years. Despite the polls, the enfeebled economy and the virtually faultless performance thus far from Messrs Clinton and Gore, it is still hard to believe the Republicans can actually lose, that the party's legendary campaign attack machine, its built-in advantage in the electoral college, and the proven capacity of the Democrats to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, will not once more in extremis see it home. Right now, however, Mr Bush is the underdog.

Change, the US seems to be saying, can no longer be put off. Politics might have been Proteus's own profession, but can the prince of the status quo, once so famously unapologetic for his lack of vision, present himself as agent of change in the post-Cold War world? Mr Bush loves to spring surprises: but on his Houstonian homecoming none would be greater than that.

(Photograph and graph omitted)