The Incredible Shrinking President

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Like a once great slugger emerging from a long slump, George Bush finally pushed one over the bleachers last week. After 10 months of maneuvering to little effect on the recession, the Los Angeles riots and the Rio Earth Summit, Bush won from Boris Yeltsin a breakthrough arms-control deal and engineered the horseshoe-throwing, arm-around-Barbara scenes that remind people of his other up-close-and-personal diplomatic triumphs.

Nonetheless, it is doubtful that the first Russian-American summit did Bush much good. He is in such poor political shape that Yeltsin, world peace and a cure for the common cold might not revive him. The public's regard for the dithering President has sunk to all-time lows: more than 50% of those + questioned in a recent survey disapprove of his handling of his job. "Bush had a pretty good substantive week," said a campaign official last Friday, "but the sad thing is that what we do has very little effect on folks. He's had such a bad spell for so long that it's hard for people to believe he could do anything right. By now, when George Bush talks, a lot of people just turn down the volume."

Bush's shrinking presidency is, oddly enough, partly the result of his re- election strategy. Since late last year, Bush has seen his campaign through the prism of 1988, when he ignored his advisers' pleas and waited until August before casting off the constraints of the vice presidency and posing as a moderate who had chafed under Ronald Reagan's conservative shackles. Bush, who likes to lower expectations and then surprise everyone by beating the depressed odds, again wants to wait until the Republican Convention in August to redefine himself. Bush expected that just as in 1988, he would slip behind in polls and then, when pundits had nearly written him off, he would come back with a boffo convention speech and a blitzkrieg campaign. In the meantime, he would direct his army of surrogates to shoulder the unpleasant job of "defining" Ross Perot and Bill Clinton.

At the moment, Vice President Dan Quayle is doing most of the heavy political lifting, arousing the G.O.P. faithful by labeling Perot a "temperamental tycoon" and attacking totems of the "cultural elite," from Murphy Brown to Time Warner and its rap recording artist Ice-T, as out of touch with family values. Bush likes to pretend he finds such negative tactics distasteful. When encouraged to comment on his sidekick's speeches, Bush is careful to distance himself with such lines as, "You better ask Mr. Quayle." But the Vice President isn't free-lancing; Bush campaign chairman Bob Teeter personally approved Quayle's characterization of Perot. As a Quayle staffer puts it, "Bush's genius is that he's always kept people around him to do his dirty work."

Veeps from Richard Nixon to Spiro Agnew rode point for embattled Commanders in Chief. But Quayle has an extra reason to strut: the only thing worse than being the Vice President is being the former Vice President. What's more, Quayle has a lean, smart staff that works well together and turns out speeches that are vivid, provocative and ideological -- exactly what Bush and his aides are not. By instinct, Quayle is several notches to Bush's right. Add ) calculation to that, and the Vice President will continue to be far more outspoken about whom and what he likes and dislikes. Bush could never, even if he believed it, have said he wears the "scorn" of cultural elites as "a badge of honor." As a result, it is Quayle, not Bush, who has sparked a national debate during the past month about values, in the process helping both himself and his mentor shore up their conservative support.

Bush is hardly helped when the Vice President sabotages his best performances with what a top Bush aide derisively called "long foul balls." Quayle's own negatives in public opinion polls remain so high that an innocent spelling mistake can undo two weeks of hard work in mere seconds. But the bigger problem for Bush in Quayle's high-visibility strategy is that with each new volley, Quayle reminds voters how few convictions Bush has. It was one thing for President Nixon to unleash Agnew: Nixon had such a strong political persona that no amount of Agnew invective could overshadow the boss. But Bush's message is so muted and confused that Quayle threatens to eclipse the President. "The reason why the President is crumbling," says a senior G.O.P. strategist in California, "stems from his failure to set forth what he truly believes."

To help start his climb back, Bush has agreed to appear on a variety of network television programs during the next few weeks to explain who he is and what he stands for. Though they are under no illusions that these appearances will make much more difference in Bush's poll ratings than the Yeltsin summit, aides now fret openly about whether the big speech can wait until Houston. They say Bush talks too much about his record and not enough about his plans. They also want to eradicate the sense of entitlement that has led Bush to say recently that he "deserves" to be re-elected. Bush, they add, must look ahead, not back, if he is to win. "What we have to hear from Bush," says a top campaign official, "is why he wants another four years, and with more passion and forcefulness."

Despite all the internal doubts, one can nonetheless detect at Bush headquarters a palpable glimmer of optimism. For the first time since the campaign began, Bush's dizzying array of consultants and stand-ins are operating in sync, uniformly tagging Perot as a quitter too untested to trust with the Oval Office. After months of confusion over what to say to Americans beyond, "Message: I care," Bush's aides have agreed on a new theme, "Message: Attack Perot." It isn't great, but it's better than nothing. Says a relieved Republican: "They've finally deep-sixed the list of 12 legislative accomplishments and jettisoned the five pillars of reform."

For Bush, there was one other hopeful sign last week. Four years ago, on June 16, 1988, Bush was reported to be 15 points behind the Democratic front runner, Michael Dukakis, in a national poll and was widely believed to have all but lost it. Later he slipped even further behind before finally pulling ahead. Bush has almost five months left in the 1992 contest, and as Bill Clinton said recently, five months is an eternity in a presidential campaign.