Bush's Economic Plan May Be Too Late To Help Win Election

But even skeptics welcomed Detroit speech as a clear plan to get economy moving again. PRESIDENTIAL RACE

PRESIDENT Bush is beginning the seventh week before election day with a new, more-coherent case for another term.

In his Detroit speech last week laying out where the economy is and where it needs to go now, he may even have grabbed hold of the elusive "vision thing," according to a range of economists and political strategists.

The problem is whether voters will believe it even if they hear it.

The Bush message has a mountain of skepticism to penetrate in coming weeks. The job is tougher because Mr. Bush waited until so late in the general election campaign to frame a forward-looking economic rationale for his presidency.

Several Republican strategists say that the Bush campaign can build some credibility into its new message and grab the public's attention, if it follows through aggressively over a sustained period, especially with paid advertising.

The Bush campaign did tout the president's proposals Thursday night through five-minute paid advertisements on all three major television networks and Cable News Network.

But the president's advisers will not discuss any further advertising or promotion plans for the Detroit message.

"I've always been too optimistic about these [landmark Bush speeches] because they don't stay with [the message]," says Jeffrey Bell, a conservative author.

The vision Bush outlined Thursday at the Detroit Economic Club rests on traditional Republican principles of low taxes, limited government, sound money, and free trade.

The president envisions the United States' role in the post-cold-war world as an "economic and export superpower." He set a goal of doubling the size of the economy by the early years of the next century and raised the notion of a strategic network of interlocking free-trade agreements around the globe.

He explained his proposals for parental school-choice, health- care reform, changing lawsuit rules, and cutting capital-gains taxes in the context of how the world economy is changing.

Bush also has added new populist proposals to his agenda, such as reducing personal tax rates by 1 percent and cutting the salaries of federal employees earning $75,000 and higher by 5 percent. Kevin Phillips, a maverick Republican strategist, says the federal pay cut "would mean something if it wasn't so transparent" an election ploy.

An economist who usually votes Republican, Richard Vedder of Ohio University, appreciates Bush's new-found sense of direction. "But I must say I wonder about the sincerity of the president, if he's really committed to it."

Another economist notes that Bush finally seems anchored in a knowledge of how the economy works. But the economist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, wonders if the anchor is Bush's own beliefs or just election-season rhetoric.

Some think that the president should have been giving speeches like last week's at least a year ago for the vision to be credible. John Sears, a lawyer and former campaign manager for President Ronald Reagan, says the Republican convention last month was probably the latest that such a speech could have been effective.

Republican pollster Ed Goeas, president of the Tarrance Group, still believes the message can overcome the skepticism, but he concedes: "In a way, I wish that was the speech he would have given during the convention."

Samuel Popkin, a Clinton campaign pollster, says voters will not buy the Bush vision "because he [the president] first has to get through the cynicism he's only doing it to get elected. For any candidate anywhere who brings up anything for the first time in the late summer or fall of an election year, he's greeted with skepticism."

The timing of the Bush speech coincided with the arrival at the White House of new chief of staff James Baker III and his aide, Robert Zoellick. They both moved from the State Department three weeks ago. Within the Bush campaign, the Detroit speech is considered to be chiefly their handiwork.

"With Jimmy Baker, you get coherence and good salad dressing, but George Bush has three and a half years of not knowing what's going on," says Mr. Phillips, a former Nixon campaign strategist.

Even most skeptics welcomed the speech itself.

Overnight tracking polls done by the Tarrance Group, a GOP firm, and the Democratic polling firm of Greenberg and Lake registered an immediate bump in favor of the president on the day of the speech, reversing slightly the incremental gains of Gov. Bill Clinton over the past two weeks.

The stock market also responded last week with a moderate rise, in marked contrast to Bush's convention acceptance speech last month, which failed to check the fall of the dollar.

"I welcomed it because it was the first time I heard Bush articulate a coherent rationale," says Gail Fosler, chief economist of the Conference Board, a New York-based business group.

Ms. Fosler, whose organization surveys consumer confidence, says that a national leader who can chart a clear direction could conceivably affect consumer attitudes, but "it needs to be something that is repeated over and over in a way people can understand."

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