The only thing that might save George Bush from a stunning loss to Governor Dukakis in November would be his selection of Jack Kemp as his running mate. Not because Kemp could "deliver" one state or another, but because it would be a concrete reassurance to the electorate that Bush would extend the Reagan revolution and not have it wither. With Kemp at his side, down the hall from the Oval Office, Bush could be a good president. It's even conceivable that a Bush-Kemp White House combination would be superior to a Kemp presidency. But it's impossible to think of anyone but Kemp who would complement Bush in this manner.
This was the brilliance of the Lloyd Bentsen selection by Dukakis, reassuring the voters that a President Dukakis would at least try to recapture the growth mantle of the JFK-LBJ ticket. The Bush team has been breaking its pick trying to persuade voters that the Duke is an extension of Carter-Mondale liberalism, because Dukakis is not. He may have been once, but at the moment he's as much under the spell of RR's economic and strategic successes as is Mikhail Gorbachev, who no longer genuflects at Lenin's tomb. Dukakis would clearly be a much more effective President with Bentsen down the hall, rather than any of the other Democratic contenders he faced this year. His ability to make this decision spoke volumes about where he'd go, as opposed to where he'd been. He's determined to recapture the economic growth aura for the Democratic Party and because he has such a hard act to follow, he'd be extremely careful to avoid a recession that could deny him re-election in 1992. Broad-scaled attacks on him could chip away at some of his lead, but Bush has to be able to refine the debate.
What are the chances of Kemp being picked next week in New Orleans? At the moment, not very high. The reason is precisely that too many people do not want him sitting down the hall from President Bush, even worse, lunching once a week alone in the Oval Office with the President, in the Reagan-Bush manner. Bush is said to be personally uncomfortable with Kemp. Jim Baker, now the campaign chief, is probably more uncomfortable with the idea. In his two major assignments under RR, JBIII found Kemp a frequent irritant in the weekly leadership meetings at the White House, intervening regularly to take issue with the assembled wisdom, all too often winning over the President. It is not possible for them to imagine Kemp holding his tongue at similar meetings as Vice President to George Bush. My surmise is that Baker is more a problem in this regard than Bush himself; the open talk of personal incompatibility did not surface until after the Bush-Baker fishing trip in Wyoming three weeks ago.
Indeed, virtually the entire high command of the Bush campaign had been plugging for Kemp prior to Baker's arrival. The paid professionals have been equally vociferous in opposing Senator Dole, whose presence on the ticket would signal instant defeat, just as his presence down the hall from a President Bush would shout to the world of the abrupt end of the Reagan era. The Vice President himself has been asking other party leaders about Dole, signaling his seriousness, and at one point he was floating Senator Dan Quayle's name, apparently not aware that Quayle comes from inherited wealth. If Bush were to add another silver-spoon to the ticket, New Jersey's Tom Kean would be far better. We hear too about Mrs. Dole, as if Bush would end his problems with the gender gap by having a woman on the ticket. My guess has always been that women, more tha*n men, sense that Bush is the type who will throw in the towel too soon, when there's still a chance of winning. Kemp, who keeps punching after the bell, would complement here too.
By now, Jim Baker should understand the importance of this kind of teamwork. Baker's greatest successes as White House chief of staff and Treasury Secretary came in the first six years of the Reagan administration, when he was complemented by Richard Darman. Darman is much less personally affable than Bush or Baker, but his keener strategic sense of timing was critical to the Reagan initiatives of that period. Since Darman left the administration in March of 1987, Baker's tenure has been less than distinguished. He gave away too much on the trade bill, caved in on plant closing, contributed to the October stock market crash with ill-timed, infelicitous handling of the Germans, and saw the Baker Plan for Third World debt run out of gas for lack of innovative follow-up. This is not meant as criticism of JBIII, but an observation on the critical importance of certain missing ingredients, whether cooking cake or policy. My long admiration for Baker was in large part due to his comfort in realizing Darman had assets he, Baker, did not.
The further bad news for Bush is that Darman, now at Shearson Lehman Button's Washington office, is not taking a leave to help Baker run the campaign. Our previous missives suggesting that the Bush campaign would get onto a faster track with Baker aboard assumed that Darman would be at his elbow. Darman says he will offer advice from afar, but in a presidential campaign, with constant, split-second, pressure-cooker decisions required, such long-distance counseling is almost worthless.
Instead, Baker has invited Stuart Spencer to assist him. Spencer, one of the most overrated political operatives of our time, was Baker's right-hand man when they ran President Ford's campaign into the ground in 1976. Spencer last year was the key behind-the-scenes player who poisoned the atmosphere against hard-nosed Donald Regan and forced his resignation as chief of staff in favor of another too-quick compromiser, Howard Baker Jr. (The current chief of staff, Ken Duberstein, another JBIII protege, was recently observed dining with Spencer and The Washington Post's Lou Cannon, a remorseless critic of Ronald Reagan.) We have seen it reported that Spencer plans to spend his time this fall traveling with the Vice Presidential nominee. It is hard to imagine him traveling with Kemp, except on opposite ends of the plane.
A New York Times poll indicates only 29% of the American people think George Bush believes what he says, that 60% believe he says what he thinks they want to hear. His negatives are horrendous, especially with women, and the more solicitous he acts, the more his affections are spurned. So George Bush has a roaring economy at his back, peace breaking out all over the world as Reagan's dominoes fall, and yet he's 18 points down to Michael Dukakis.
Can he make up the lead? Evans & Novak observe that nobody who has been that far behind has ever won the presidency. But that's only because the candidates who've fallen that far behind never quite get it in time. Elections are like charades, with the voters trying to signal what they have in mind in the way of leadership. And Bush has been getting colder, not warmer. It's my guess they have in mind a younger Reagan, not a more conservative Bush. A younger Reagan, as in 1980, would not be out there slashing at Dukakis, bleating about his true liberalism. He'd be cheerfully talking about the world he saw ahead and about the unlikely counter-intuitive policies that would get us there: weakness is provocative and strength is peaceful, welfare is debilitating and work refreshing, lower tax rates produce higher revenues and less economic planning produces bigger economies.
A younger Reagan would now publicly acknowledge he is in deep do-do, using exactly those words, self-effacing and good-humored. He would be comfortably discussing the affluence of his youth, his silver spoon, and his spacious Kennebunkport lifestyle instead of allowing his imagemakers to squeeze him into a log cabin; Bush is always more effective when he's natural, and there are some good signs that he's chafing at the stage direction he's been getting. A younger Reagan would pick as his running mate someone who would complement him in the campaign and in the White House, an experienced sounding board for ideas rather than an ideological competitor, someone like George Bush. For Bush, of course, the fellow is Kemp, who may have too many ideas to be President at the moment, but whose presence would energize a Bush administration and keep the Reagan revolution rolling. A Bush-Kemp ticket could make up an 18 point deficit. Nothing else will.