Bush in Retreat
Jude Wanniski
August 2, 1988


President Reagan's decision to allow the plant-closing bill to become law without a veto fight is a major victory for the Democrats and a major mistake by George Bush and his campaign team. It also clears the way for enactment of the trade bill, perhaps by the end of this week. The Vice President, by persuading Reagan to throw in the towel on plant closing, which both had vigorously opposed on clear, free-market principle, signaled a willingness to accept bad economics as a political expediency. Where Governor Dukakis's 13-point lead over him in the public-opinion polls called for signs of leadership from Bush, he instead retreated. Insofar as the tactic was cleared by Treasury Secretary Baker at their weekend fishing trip in Wyoming 10 days ago, it suggests JBIII will be no help to Bush when he leaves Treasury to take control of the Bush campaign.

Indeed, part of the calculus on JBIII's part seemed to be that he had to clear away the plant-closing and trade bills before his resignation prior to the GOP convention. Baker's final legacy as Treasury Secretary will thus be a protectionist trade bill and the anti-capitalist plant-closing law, grotesque additions to the President's legacy as well. The Bush advisers accepted all this as facing "political reality," but it surely makes it more difficult to imagine Bush digging himself out of his hole. It confirms reports that Bush, speaking privately to GOP senators two weeks ago, announced that his primary goal to November is to stay free of controversy.

The decision to throw in the towel here also blows away almost any chance of mounting a last-ditch effort in the Senate for the Wallop Amendment to the trade bill. A fight over plant-closing would have bought time for Wallop to maneuver on his proposal to retain Presidential powers on protectionist trade actions. Unless some unforeseen development occurs, it's now likely Senate Majority Leader Byrd will be able to steamroll trade through to the President's desk by the weekend. The Republicans in the Senate, with some notable exceptions, seem weary of the fight. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, the liberals' favorite GOP conservative, has been a leader in arguing for a general retreat. It hardly seems possible that the Bush strategists would permit these developments on the threshold of the GOP convention, which now shapes up as a sad affair, a farewell to Reagan rather than a celebration of Bush. The seek-no-controversy mode suggests Bush will pick a "safe" running mate, one who will not be troublesome. Now we hear Senator Quayle of Indiana, who some Bushies push as having Jack Kemp's positive qualities without Kemp's controversial aura!!!

For the first time, we are now forced to think in terms of Governor Dukakis being the likely next President. The decision on the plant-closing bill will be hung on Bush, not Reagan, and the closest equivalent may be President Ford's decision in January 1976 to extend oil-price controls. That Ford blunder cost him the enthusiasm of the party conservatives and made Reagan a viable contender in the primaries, and cost him the oil patch and the White House in November. It seems bleak, sports fans, but we will not leave the grandstands until the fat lady sings. Stay tuned.