Bush's Economic Plan: Where Does He Go From Here?

Like many undecided voters, Rogers Wade tuned in to George Bush's acceptance speech hoping to learn of the President's plan for spurring economic growth. But instead of hearing "something that reassured me," the Atlanta business consultant felt his unease increase. "I'm not sure I heard an economic plan," he says. "I must have gone to the bathroom or something." Less interested in the collapse of communism than in the slumping economy, the disappointed 1988 Bush backer is now seriously considering a switch to Democrat Bill Clinton.

That's hardly the reaction White House strategists expected from Bush's Aug. 20 speech in Houston. But the response, as measured by polls and political pros, suggests that while the Republicans successfully used their convention to raise doubts about Bill Clinton's character and experience, they failed to quell doubts about Bush's ability to revitalize the economy. "It was unspecific, undefined, unclear, and undated," says Democratic consultant Ann F. Lewis. "It underlined what people don't like about George Bush."

NO DETAILS. Daily polls taken during the convention had shown Bush gaining on Clinton, and the President's aides expected the speech to close the gap. Instead, Bush's momentum collapsed as the gop powwow ended. A cbs News/New York Times poll taken Aug. 23-24 gave Clinton a 55%-to-39% lead, virtually unchanged from a preconvention survey. "After the speech, things eased up for us," says Sam Popkin, a Clinton pollster. "Every single postconvention poll showed a bigger gap than the midconvention polls."

The surveys contained ominous news for the President. The CBS/Times poll showed Bush cutting into Clinton's lead only in the South. The Democrat leads 59% to 34% in the Northeast, 56% to 41% in the north-central region, and 60% to 33% in the West. While 95% of those surveyed said the nation needs "real change," only 15% believe Bush will deliver it, vs. 61% for Clinton.

The major political problem with Bush's economic potpourri is the lack of anything that voters can get their arms around. He's promising an "across-the-board" tax cut but offers no details. And Administration officials still can't explain how a gimmicky deficit-reduction tax check-off would work.

Independent analysts are unimpressed by Bush's echo of Ronald Reagan's 1980 tax-cut crusade. "You're playing a record that's 12 years old," says Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier. "The sound's scratchy, the melody is hard to hear, and people don't want to listen to it anymore." A Gallup Poll conducted the weekend after the convention confirms such doubts. It found that 61% of voters were convinced that Bush would raise taxes, not lower them, if reelected. After reading Bush's lips once again, a solid majority concluded, for now, that Clinton would be better at handling both taxes and the deficit.

Still, gop strategists believe Bush's economic plan draws a sharp distinction between him and Clinton. "It's an excellent program, politically," says senior campaign adviser Charles Black. "It'll cut taxes and cut spending, and the Democrats have promised to raise taxes and raise spending."

The Republicans plan to keep hammering this theme home. Portraying themselves as the party of low taxes has worked three times, and it could yet succeed this year. That's especially important because there's growing evidence that voters are far less interested in Bush's assault on Democrats' supposed lack of "family values" than they are in hearing what the President plans to do to fix the economy. Voters want to know a lot more about the President's new economic program before they'll take another swig of the Republican elixir.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.