WASHINGTON -- Any semblance of coherence and purpose among President Bush's economic advisers disappeared in the devastating four-part series that appeared this month in The Washington Post.
The articles, written by Bob Woodward of Watergate fame, paint a credible picture of a White House in chaos on tax and economic policy issues. The upshot was that the President got conflicting advice and, at times, no advice, when he needed to understand that conditions outside the White House gate were getting worse instead of better.
For reporters who have covered the Bush administration, the picture of stumblebum policymaking is not a surprise.
Richard Darman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, is well known as the President's slipperiest handler and hatchet man, a consummate back-door negotiator who is always looking for a political deal to keep the lights on. It was Darman who prodded Bush into the 1990 budget agreement, with its additional taxes, just as the economy headed into recession.
Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady has consistently drawn low marks among bankers and money managers for his weakness and lack of insight on major financial issues. It was Brady who kept saying in public that he sensed the economy was getting better; he couldn't point to hard data, just his gut feelings and his talks with private businessmen.
Only Michael Boskin, chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, gets consistently high praise. Private economists acclaim him for honesty in forecasting backed by a scholarly devotion to statistics and sound professional analysis.
Astonishingly, according to Woodward's account, Boskin tried for month's last year to get a personal meeting with Bush to tell him the economy was slipping back into neutral. But he was rebuffed by John Sununu, the President's chief of staff at the time, until Boskin threatened to resign last November. After seeing Boskin, Bush started to strike a more cautious tone in his comments on the economy and admit things were not going very well.
One point the articles raise is that the organizational apparatus for giving the President advice had serious problems. Traditionally, the Treasury secretary has a senior role in the process, but Brady was frequently at odds with Darman and the President's chief of staff -- first Sununu and then Samuel Skinner.
More disturbing is the vicious tone of the intramural fighting. Darman, according to Woodward's account, held Brady in especially low esteem. He is said to have called Brady a "dolt" who could not pass a basic college course in economics and "the weakest Treasury secretary in the history of the country."
In fact, the portrait of Brady is the most unflattering of all the President's top advisers. He reportedly surprised bank executives by suggesting they stop buying Treasury securities and instead use their money to make more loans to ease the credit crunch. He fell out of favor with Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, who believed Brady did not understand technical issues affecting interest rates.
James Baker, who served as Treasury secretary under the Reagan administration and is now Bush's chief of staff, is reported to be sorry he recommended Brady as his successor. Baker has joined in the bitter criticism of Brady as a fumbler.
President Bush, seeking to show he is in control of his team and planning for the future, said during the first television debate that if he is re-elected he will appoint Baker as chief czar for domestic and economic policy.
Administration officials followed up by asking all the President's advisers to submit pro forma letters of resignation so that Bush can establish a new team in a second term, which is traditional for any president who is re-elected.
But there is an air of futility and bitterness in the air. Administration officials let it be known that Brady will not be Treasury secretary for a second Bush term, if there is one, and Boskin has already said he intends to resign. On Capitol Hill, Democrats are already speculating that Senate Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen, D-Tex., will be Treasury secretary under a Clinton administration.
In what many are now seeing as the final days of the Bush presidency, it is is perhaps fitting that the wheels seem to be coming off he bus. The President's top economic advisers served him badly and contributed to his decline. And Bush never took steps to correct the situation by shaking up his team.