The most important news that came out of last night's presidential debate was not that President Bush "did not throw a knockout punch" or Bill Clinton "didn't make a mistake" or that Ross Perot "got the most applause." It was the mumbled announcement from the President that James Baker III would stay on as chief-of-staff and economic czar in his second term. A week ago, Mr. Bush made it clear JBIII would be going back to the State Department. Since then, the President and his family read the Bob Woodward series in The Washington Post. Perhaps it finally dawned on Mr. Bush why he and the American people have been ill-served by his domestic economic team, which is that Messrs. Brady and Darman never believed in the economic growth agenda that he campaigned for in 1988. At this 11th hour, with a Clinton victory seeming inevitable, the President has done the one thing that can conceivably save him -- essentially naming JBIII deputy President in a second term.
That in itself is not going to switch any votes. What Baker says and does in the next three weeks to paint a picture of what things will be like in 1993 is the only thing that can turn the tide. Baker is the only person available to the President who has the credibility required to pull this off. Indeed, there is nobody in the country who has the can-do reputation of JBIII for this assignment, a reputation that stretches across the breadth of the press corps and the business community. He is now in the position of being able to tell the American people what the new Administration will attempt to do on Day One, what he believes it will mean to the economy immediately and long term, and who will be there to help him get the job done. If Baker says it's going to happen, it's going to happen. That's the sense the American people have of him -- in a way they do not have of the President himself. Does this speak poorly of the President? Not at all. The electorate does not expect the President to do more than espouse a set of principles and hire the can-do people to implement them as policy. At this stage of the political campaign, George Bush is not 18 points behind Bill Clinton because Clinton's principles are more attractive. Quite the contrary, the Bush domestic program -- as stated in his Baker-inspired speech last month to the Detroit Economic Club -- is far superior to the dressed-up Keynesian approach of Clinton's. The President has failed on implementation for four years running because he has retained can't-do people on the domestic side. It's as simple as that.
The one strength of Ross Perot's presentation last night was not his wit and humor, but the sense that if he somehow made it to the Oval Office, he would work night and day until he got the job done. He would change ideas, policies, and personnel until they somehow clicked. He would not go duck hunting or skeet shooting or golfing as long as there was something he could do to break the policy gridlock and get things moving. Perot, though, has John White's 50-cent gasoline tax around his neck. If he were elected on the austerity plan sketched out in his book, the country would have to endure considerable misery. Perot's trial and error process would eventually find its way to the kind of entrepreneurial growth path that we would get immediately with Baker running things.
In my mind last night, Perot "won" the debate only insofar as he exceeded audience expectations, to the point that justifies his being in the ring at all. In the next debate later this week, he'll have to do a better job painting a picture of what things will be like in '93 in a Perot Administration, and I don't think he will. Told that his performance last night was a winner, he'll do it again and this time it won't seem nearly as charming.
Clinton did not do well in my mind. I've been trying to adjust to the idea of four years of a Clinton Administration, and he hasn't seemed bad at all on the 30-second soundbites I've been catching on the evening news -- especially compared to the President's fumblings about Clinton's character. Clinton's performance last night was so earnestly robotic, so totally lacking in spontaneity, so mushy in its programmed "human touches," that I found myself getting edgier by the minute about his staying power. He may continue to impress the business community by reciting his love for the business community, with his "Invest for Growth" plan. I'm sure he also believes he will be good for business. But as a small-state governor he has never before had to live on a macro-economic plain. When he cited the support his program has received from nine Nobel prizewinners and 500 economists (or was it 500 Nobel prizewinners and nine economists?) I shuddered. How easy it would be for him to unwittingly send the economy reeling. He did at least encourage us to believe he could support Alan Greenspan at the Fed, and for that the markets can be grateful.
President Bush, let's face it, is a rhetorical klutz and always has been, a caricature of the "Saturday Night Live" impersonation of him. In the Woodward series last week, we learn that he practically had to practice with a metronome in 1988 to say the simple line: "Read My Lips, No New Taxes." Voters don't care about rhetoric, though. Calvin Coolidge was immensely popular in his day and he rarely said more than "Yes" or "No." The President's most impressive moment, I thought, was in his statement on relations with China. All of Asia is worried that a President Clinton will mishandle relations with China at a very delicate moment in the development of that country's political economy. Mr. Bush's statement was rhetorically clumsy, but it reminded me of how happy I've been that his careful China policy has prevailed over that of the Democratic liberals, who have the high-sounding rhetoric but are klutzes on policy.
The President's economic message was much too Darmanesque for my tastes, though, never once mentioning growth as a deficit solution. Darman's fetish is containing the deficit by entitlement caps, and the President repeated this idea several times last night. This is what JBIII can try to correct by going public as the surrogate President. He will make a speech Wednesday to tell us what's on his mind. He will then be available, I assume, for all the talk shows he has been avoiding. As he now has been given the franchise by the President, I'd be surprised if he proceeded incrementally. He has to do some serious painting of that 1993 picture and I expect a big splash. An anonymous voice from Air Force One, returning from St. Louis today, is on the wires telling us that the old economic team will not be around in the second term. Baker will need to go further, though, painting in some new personnel. Will he do it? Won't that make it seem that he is acting out of desperation? Of course. But the situation is desperate and the electorate will not hold it against Baker if he were to do the right thing at the very last minute.
In essence, Baker has become the fourth candidate in the race. This is all the President has left: If you are disgusted with him, uncomfortable with Clinton, and nervous about Perot, you can vote for JBIII. He's the class of the field. What we will be offered in the next three weeks is the next four years of a President Bush keeping tabs on China, Mexico and other parts of the world that he knows, and playing lots of golf in his spare time, while President Baker fixes things up at home. It may not be enough to win, but as a two-for-one offer, it should at least close the gap.