As George Bush casts about for an election-year life preserver, he is taking domestic policy inspiration from an unlikely quarter: the office of Vice-President Dan Quayle. The President's own staff is short on energy and ideas. That has made it easier for Quayle and his crew of fervent conservative intellectuals to fill the vacuum.
This may help Quayle build himself up as a 1996 Presidential contender. But the value of his counsel, which is pulling the President rightward as voters head the other way, is open to question. At a time when polls show the public wants more aid for cities, for example, Quayle is stepping up his assault on the dynamics of urban unrest.
Another case in point: Bush's decision to weaken environmental regulations. Heeding the Veep's Council on Competitiveness, Bush overruled Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K. Reilly by granting a major exemption to the Clean Air Act. The action eases "permit rule" requirements to allow companies expanding plants or changing production processes to increase emissions without notifying the public.
PUZZLEMENT. The move was met with almost universal catcalls from environmentalists and Democrats, and puzzlement from many Republicans. "It looks like the only understandable domestic policy they have over there is giving business and Wall Street what they want," says GOP analyst Kevin Phillips. "It won't wear well with the average person."
And the clean-air maneuver isn't the first time Quayle's agenda has been embraced by a President who seems desperate to cobble together a domestic policy. On a trip to riot-torn Los Angeles, he baffled listeners by repeating Quayle's attacks on costly, excessive litigation. In Kalamazoo, Mich., at an artificial-limb factory, he borrowed from Quayle's playbook, railing about "guys coaching Little League afraid to coach because of a lawsuit being filed against them." Mused one plant manager: "Where did that come from?"
The Quaylites will keep up the pressure. They've convinced Bush that easing regulation lets him reach two key goals. By lowering business' costs, he can buy some insurance for a fragile recovery. And he can demonstrate his conservative credentials to a disaffected GOP right.
THINK TANK. Quayle has been steadily improving his entree at the White House. He's a golfing buddy of Chief of Staff Samuel K. Skinner. And thanks to Skinner, Budget Director Richard G. Darman no longer controls all domestic policy. Meanwhile, Quayle's shop, headed by staff chief William Kristol, is giving the Vice-President a prominence he couldn't win on his own. "Quayle wouldn't know a permit rule from a three iron," sneers a highly placed Administration official.
Independent Ross Perot is also helping Quayle. Bush aides worry about Perot's appeal to small business and the suburbs, and strategists think a probusiness stance will win back wavering supporters. "We're happy to work with Dan Quayle to remind Republicans what we stand for," says Will Feltus, Bush's deputy campaign manager.
The main thrust of Quayle's advice to his boss is to return to the conservative platform he ran on four years ago. That means a revived campaign to cut capital-gains taxes and stepped-up confrontation with congressional Democrats. The trouble is that a swing right at this point will only remind voters of how far Bush has strayed. And even business is viewing the "new" Bush with a wary eye. "What entrepreneurs and businesspeople want most from George Bush isn't red meat," says John Endean of the American Business Conference. "It's consistency."