One of the advantages of being well ahead is that you cannot be forced to tell voters what you would do if you win.
Holding his first press conference in more than two weeks, Vice President George Bush made clear Sunday that he intends to use that advantage to the limit. Questions about how he would govern, Bush said, “take me beyond where I want to go . . . . I can’t even start contemplating beyond Nov. 8.”
Would he say where he would cut to balance the federal budget? “No.”
How would he handle the strengthened position of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua? “I would say, simply, to take a hard look.”
What role would his running mate, Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana, have as vice president? “There’s a wide array of places where the vice president could be useful.”
What all this adds up to is a calculated strategy designed to ensure, as Bush said Saturday, that he does not “mess up” by saying something controversial in the final three weeks of the campaign.
What it may not add up to is a mandate--that elusive entity which allows a victorious President to tell Congress and the federal bureaucracy: “I campaigned on this; I won; we’re going to do it.”
At least some Bush supporters in Congress see this as a major potential problem for the vice president should he win.
The same polls that show Bush with a consistent lead in the presidential race also show that the Democrats will all but certainly retain control of the Senate, perhaps increasing their margin. Democratic control of the House is not seriously contested.
Reagan Tax-Cut Campaign
In 1980, President Reagan overcame opposition from a Democrat-controlled House to pass his program of tax cuts and budget reductions. But Reagan had campaigned with those goals as an explicit program and could assert to wavering members of Congress--with considerable effect--that his victory entitled him to their votes.
By contrast, in 1984, Reagan ran for reelection with a vague, thematic campaign. The effort was typified by his “morning in America” slogan, which provided him with little leverage in Congress for the next four years.
Particularly since Democrats retook control of the Senate in 1986, the initiative on domestic policy, and some foreign-policy matters, has largely passed from the Administration to Congress. Many of the architects of the 1984 campaign are now working for Bush.
Bush chief of staff Craig L. Fuller insists that the vice president has “some good relations up there” on Capitol Hill that would help him avoid some of the deadlocks Reagan has faced.
But Bush also has some powerful potential adversaries--ranging from Senate Republican leader Bob Dole, who ran against him in the primaries, to House Speaker Jim Wright, whom Bush has pilloried as an example of Democratic ethical lapses, to Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, who is expected to retain his chairmanship of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee if his ticket loses and he is simultaneously reelected to the Senate.
Bush and his top aides, however, profess not to be concerned. “I can’t comment on the mandate,” Bush said Sunday.
“The biggest mistake we could make would be to get overconfident or try to run some kind of grandiose mandate campaign,” said his campaign manager, Lee Atwater.
Bush will, to be sure, have a mandate for some things should he win. Most notably, he insists day after day that he will not accept a federal tax increase.
Response to Economic Panel
Asked Sunday how he would respond if the blue-ribbon National Economic Commission set up earlier this year recommends tax increases to cure the deficit, Bush made clear that he would view his own election as a decision by the voters on that question.
“We’re having a national election,” he said. The voters “will be saying what direction they want to go.”
Few economists, however, believe that the no-taxes pledge is realistic, and in Washington leading corporations already have begun spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire high-priced lobbyists to begin protecting favored portions of the tax code on the assumption that a tax increase will be coming down the road soon.
Bush on Sunday spelled out the assumptions undergirding his plan to balance the budget by the end of his first term without a tax increase. The assumptions, which have previously been detailed by Bush advisers, are highly optimistic: interest rates declining by 2 percentage points within the next year, inflation remaining at 4% or less and economic growth continuing at the current rate of slightly less than 3% annually.
Should those forecasts not pan out, Bush’s campaign so far has provided little ground for him to insist that the voters have approved his priorities rather than those of any congressional rival.
Promises Without Details
In addition, Bush has made a series of campaign promises, some of them seemingly contradictory, without giving many details of how he would carry them out.
Bush has, for example, said that he wants to be the “education President” and that he would pursue environmental protection while seeking to maintain economic growth. He has not described what those pledges would mean, and Sunday he made clear that he has no plans to do so.
“I want them to digest the 107 papers we already have put out,” he said when asked whether he will give voters in the remainder of the campaign a more detailed look at what his priorities might be.
“We don’t plan,” he said, “to launch some brand new initiative.”
Bush’s mention of 107 papers was a reference to position papers his campaign has issued. Most of them, in the manner of nearly all presidential campaigns, are long on general statements of priority and short on program specifics.