Vice President George Bush on Wednesday rejected the suggestion that he could win but still not have a mandate to govern, saying the American people know what this election is about and he would expect to ask Congress to respond accordingly.
He also said the clamor over negative campaigning and lack of substance in the election was overblown and was a result of the slant of media coverage and commentary.
In an airborne interview between campaign stops, the Republican presidential nominee said the public has come to like him in this campaign. And, he argued, enough is known of what he stands for--even when he has been deliberately vague--that no one could doubt what a George Bush victory would mean.
Increasingly, as the polls have swung his way, Bush has been met with questions about his priorities. From among his scores of pledges and literally hundreds of policy pronouncements, the matter remains stubbornly unanswered: How would he arrange his priorities? Where could he claim his mandate?
Interviewers who hope to crack Bush are routinely disappointed. “As soon as I tell you that, you write that I’m overconfident,” he said in the interview. “I’m just not going to do it.”
But Bush offered some glimpses of his thinking when he was asked to elaborate on how he might deal with Congress in two specific areas--the budget deficit, where he has been outspoken if not entirely specific in his pronouncements, and the Nicaraguan Contras, where he has been intentionally quiet and vague.
On the Contras:
“I don’t know whether the American people have any blurring on that one or not. . . . (But) I don’t think there is any question in anyone’s mind in the Congress as to where I stand in terms of Nicaragua. None.”
About all Bush will say these days on the ticklish subject of that country’s civil war among superpower-backed factions is that he supports democracy in the country--and he says that only when directly asked about the subject.
“The fact that is not on the agenda of discussion in the speeches and all should not be interpreted as lack of interest . . . ,” Bush said. “Democracy in Nicaragua is a priority, freedom and Democracy. . . .”
But the vice president continued: “Specifically, beyond that what the first step I’ll take in January, I can’t say. . . . But is George Bush viscerally committed to helping the people of Nicaragua enjoy the fruits of democracy? The answer is yes. It is something I really do feel strongly about.”
Within a month of Inauguration Day, aid to the Reagan Administration-backed Contras will run out. Bush was asked whether, if he were elected, Congress could legitimately resist his support for the Contras on grounds that he has not emphasized Nicaragua during the election campaign.
Public Knows Stance
“No, it wouldn’t be legitimate. They know (Democratic candidate Michael S.) Dukakis has called the (Administration) policy illegal and I’m for it.”
On the deficit:
“I’d call in the leaders in both parties and I’d say here’s what the election was about--very clear positions about not raising taxes, about giving the President the line-item veto, controlling spending.
“The election should be about, to some degree, the will of the American people. I’d say, here are my cards. Here is what I spelled out all year long--the priorities. Now let’s try within those broad parameters to work out a program to get the deficit down.”
Bush, who often rails at the big-spending ways of Congress in his political speeches, seemed much more accommodating in person. And if the debate over the deficit sometimes seems to conjure up prospects of a brand-new approach, Bush said likely not. Maybe he and Congress will agree to stick with the goals of the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction law, which calls for steady cuts in spending growth until the deficit is erased in 1993.
“It might just be along the lines of compliance with Gramm-Rudman as it exists. Congress did a pretty good job this year because their spending did not increase any faster than the 4% that I am talking about,” Bush said.
Four percent is how much Bush said he would permit spending to increase each year under his so-called “flexible freeze.” That would mean that some programs would get more and some would get a lot less to average out to 4%.
Refuses to Give Details
As he has throughout the campaign, though, Bush refused to detail exactly what programs would be squeezed the most as the red ink is wrung out of the federal budget.
In discussing the national uproar over the tone of the campaign, the vice president blamed commentators and the demands of modern electioneering.
“How many people knew we put out 127 issue papers? It’s the nature of how campaigns are reported, covered and advertised. . . ,” Bush said, adding that he did not agree that this campaign is unusually muddy.
Bush offered for consideration a quite different measure of “negatives"--his own popularity negatives, which were once the worst of any contender in his position in contemporary presidential politics.
“Don’t you remember when they were writing about the negatives so high I couldn’t be elected President? . . . Now the negatives are low. People look at me much more positively than they did before.”
Still, Bush acknowledged he shares the public’s weariness with a campaign that seems grindingly repetitive, day after day, month after month.
“Dissatisfied? How do you know I’m not fed up with it?” he asked, lounging in slippers and a nylon flight jacket in the comfortable vice presidential cabin aboard Air Force Two. “I’m ready for the election.”
Bush’s campaign manager, Lee Atwater, meanwhile, was in Los Angeles where he vowed the campaign would continue up until Election Day with the emphasis strictly on winning.
“And we’re still running a 270-electoral vote strategy,” Atwater told reporters. “We’re not out there trying to win a mandate, to try to win 400 electoral votes. We are out there trying to win two-seven-oh electoral votes.”
Atwater offered little prospect that the campaign’s tone would change in its final days: “Anytime Dukakis bellyaches about our campaign, we’ll bellyache right back,” he vowed.
For Bush, the day combined a trip West with stops to speak to business leaders in Detroit and attend rallies of the GOP faithful in Sioux Falls, S.D., and Billings, Mont.
South Dakota and Montana are small states with only seven electoral votes combined. But Press Secretary Sheila Tate said Bush’s lead in both places was narrow and “soft,” justifying campaign stops as the vice president flew to the Pacific Coast battleground states of Washington and California.
In his economic address, his third in as many days, Bush made a special pitch to women voters.
“Overall, of the 18 million new jobs we’ve created in the Reagan-Bush boom, two-thirds have been filled by women. In fact, the unemployment rate for women used to be about 25% higher than that for men in the 1970s but it is now virtually equal to that for men.
He continued, “And real earnings, working full time are growing twice as fast as those for men.”
Staff writer Claudia Luther in Los Angeles contributed to this story.