In the first presidential debate two weeks ago, President Bush announced that Jim Baker would stay on as chief-of-staff in a second term, to do for domestic policy what he had done for foreign policy. I took this as an extremely positive step by the President, as the country thinks of JBIII as a man who can get things done. The voters wish they could vote for President Bush, I suggested, but they expect to vote for Governor Clinton because they really don't think things would change much in a second Bush term. It seemed to me that if Jim Baker would lend his weight in selling the economic program the President outlined in Detroit last month, practically offering himself as a can-do "deputy president," the electorate might shift its opinion sufficiently to make this race interesting. Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota tells me I may be the only person he knows who still thinks George Bush can win with less than two weeks to go and Clinton a dozen points ahead. I do, after watching the President's dignified performance Monday night, but only if Jim Baker gets into the fight, which for some reason he has so far refused to do.
He had made a brief television appearance after that first debate, to say he would make a speech in a few days to outline his new role. When days passed without the promised speech, word came that he would not follow through until all the debates were completed. Now, The Wall Street Journal reports, he has decided not to go public, but will remain an invisible man, because he does not wish the President to be demeaned by the press for needing him as "deputy president." In his Friday WSJ column, Paul Gigot, like me a Baker admirer, accused him of "going AWOL," of having decided the race was hopelessly lost, of surrendering in order to save his own reputation. These are only speculations, but I admire Gigot for raising them, as they are rampant on the political circuit. Indeed, if Baker remains hidden in the West Wing for the remainder of the campaign, the reputation he so carefully built over a dozen years will be in tatters. He will be remembered most vividly by his peers, if not history, as having thrown in the towel while the President was still in there slugging, bloody and battered.
In his performance Monday night, the President was at his best — vital, crisp, self-assured. For the first time this year I found myself thinking of how much there is left of George Bush, instead of how much has gone. Instead of feeling embarrassed for him, as I did in the second debate, I actually felt he might have the stuff to produce a second term better than his first. There's plenty of spark. The press corps applauded his performance and the country felt good for him, I think, happy that this man who has given so much of himself to us will be able to face inevitable defeat in a manly fashion, going out with grace. There wasn't enough there to complete the picture, though, not enough to suggest a dramatic turnaround. He can't do it by himself, and he can't do it without Jim Baker.
Instead of helping the President as I'd thought, by radiating resolve and confidence around a new domestic agenda, Baker is hurting George Bush by conveying a sense of exhaustion and finality. Baker should be acting as if he were deputy president, as this is exactly the missing ingredient in the electorate's wish list for the President. We should be seeing him on the Brinkley Show and on "Larry King Live," telling us about the first hundred days of the second Bush Administration ~ what will be sought, who will be there to get the job done, and what will be accomplished. He should be giving daily press briefings, speaking with the great weight of authority that he possesses after 12 years in the most demanding jobs in the world. If he could convey a sense of conviction, this would give resonance to the fresh vitality the President is at last conveying.
Even if a Clinton win is in the cards, a closing splash by Jim Baker to paint an optimum picture of an economic growth strategy could only serve the political process and the country. Baker is the only person in the country who could do this for Bush with credibility. As good as he was Monday, the President still stresses Darmanesque deficit themes instead of Reaganesque growth themes when talking of his plans for the economy. This is another of the great mysteries that all of Washington is speculating upon: why Darman remains so visible while Baker remains out of sight. A New York Times Washington heavyweight yesterday told me that he — and practically everyone he knows — would have fired Darman on the first day of the Woodward series in The Washington Post. He said he can only guess that Jim Baker is protecting Darman for his own career reasons. The net effect is to damage the President further. Yet Baker doesn't have to get rid of Darman at this late date. He need only blot him out with his own active presence in the public eye, communicating a picture of a second term with a fresh team. He need only privately stamp out persistent rumors that he would try to sell Darman at Treasury to the President.
There is still little enthusiasm for Clinton among a sizeable portion of the electorate that is stating a preference for him. In addition, Ross Perot's recent performance has restored much of his credibility as a vote of dissent against the Ruling Class of both parties. The President didn't gain much in the polls after his Monday performance, but Perot did, at the expense of Clinton. As Perot hammers away, I think he will continue to peel votes from Clinton, especially from minorities who remain troubled by Clinton's handling of them this year and by blue-collar Reagan Democrats who are attracted to Perot's can-do, down-to-earth message. There will not be enough slippage to get Perot into serious contention, but there could be enough to give a three-way race new possibilities for the President — if JBIII gets into the contest. At the very least, the more excitement generated in the closing days of the campaign, the bigger the turnout of new voters who will tend to vote against incumbents. In this scenario, a Clinton landslide could be accompanied by not only a more Republican Congress, but also a much more growth-oriented Congress.
I've tried to warm to Clinton in these last several weeks, but without much success. Nothing he says offers any assurance that he means what he says, and there is absolutely no certainty on personnel to guide us. I was at an international industrial conference over the weekend, speaking on the world economy. There was great interest among the foreigners in my opinion of a Clinton Administration. The best I could say was that I thought we were safe on the monetary side for a few years, with Alan Greenspan and other Reagan/Bush Fed appointees running that show. Otherwise, I told the group in all seriousness that I take it as a positive that Clinton doesn't seem to believe in anything with great conviction. He may start out in one direction, but if he gets burned, I'd guess he'd run the other way sooner than most. For this reason, I think, President Bush is not making headway in accusing Clinton of a lack of consistency. If the voters are eager for a President who is ready to change his mind when things don't work, they will have one in Bill Clinton. They have not had one in President Bush, who has stuck with his economic team through one loss after another. I thought there would be change with Jim Baker in charge, but so far I confess I have been wrong.