Once more the conventional wisdom of the moment is that President Carter is in deep political trouble. Governor Carey of New York wants him to release his delegates and permit an open Democratic convention. There is widespread speculation about the possibility that he might not be able to win his own renomination or, if he did, be able to defeat Republican Ronald Reagan.
How seriously is this to be taken?
Well, first of all consider that the conventional wisdom of last August was precisely the same, indeed, even more so. The most respected of Washington political watchers were all but unanimous in assuming that Mr. Carter's administration had become a political disaster. The serious question then was over the identity of the Republican who would presumably become the residual beneficiary. That Mr. Carter might regain a viable political posture seemed unthinkable. That was the time when Senator Kennedy was reaching his own decision to run, on the theory that it was a last chance to salvage the Democratic Party.
The mere fact that Washington's political pundits agree among themselves on such a proposition does not always prove that it is true, or even plausible. It proved to be untrue last fall after Mr. Carter reorganized his administration, and seized upon foreign crisis as a new political vehicle. His recovery was steady and substantial. He showed a mastery of the art of using federal funds to influence mayors and unions -- and any other element in the old Democratic Party coalition which has won so many elections from 1932 on. It proved to be decisive against Senator Kennedy. Mr. Carter is today in sight of renomination in spite of what the Washington watchers are saying.
Now he is in another political trough brought on partly by the failure of the attempt to rescue the hostages, but much more from sudden unemployment throughout the automobile industry with a spillover of more unemployment in steel, rubber, and other satellites of Detroit. The fact that other and more modern industries are booming and even show rising employment is beside the point politically. The people of the United States are so accustomed to the theory that prosperity is to be measured by automobile sales that unemployment in Detroit sends a shock wave radiating over the whole country.
But the unemployment that counts is not what the figures show today but what they will show along about the first of October when the political campaign goes into the homestretch. People vote economic hopes or fears on the basis of how things are about a month before polling day. If the trend is up then, the chances are that the popular view of the party in power will be relatively favorable.
We may be sure that Carter strategy calls for rising employment by about Oct. 1. Meanwhile his economic operations have in fact begun to slow the inflation rate, which is what most people at least thought they were most worried about until very recently. Hence, suppose that by early October the inflation rate has steadied down into the single-digit range, perhaps as low as 5 or 6 percent, and suppose at the same time that federal programs now going through Congress do stimulate employment enough to wipe away scare headlines. Then what happens? Mr. Carter will look much better to the average voter than he does today.
The fears, frustrations, and resentments of May do not always last into October.
Nor do the political reactions to moves made in foreign policy. For example, there is the matter of Mr. Carter's failure to realize the importance of his presence at the funeral in Belgrade for President Tito of Yugoslavia. I for one regard that as an appalling lapse of judgment in foreign policy. The welfare and security of Western Europe are a prime objective of US foreign policy. The independence of Yugoslavia has since 1948 been a bulwark of the West against Moscow pressures. It has shielded Italy, the weakest of the NATO allies. Any scenario written by diplomatic or military experts about how World War III might begin almost invariably starts with the assumption of a weakening of will to independence in Yugoslavia after Tito.
How does Washington bolster that will to independence in Yugoslavia? By the President being present, thereby showing appreciation of the enormous importance of Yugoslavia to stability in Western Europe. And Mr. Carter was not there.
he magnitude of the failure to appreciate the importance of the President's presence stunned foreign policy experts, including the allies. If West Europeans were voting in the US elections tomorrow they would vote overwhelmingly against Mr. Carter.
But West Europeans do not vote in US elections either tomorrow or in November. US voters are seldom influenced by foreign opinion. And blunders in foreign policy are quickly forgotten in Peoria. The fact that I and every foreign policy expert I know think it was an apalling blunder will probably not cost Mr. Carter a single vote in November.
In other words, speculations about November are pretty much a waste of time, unless you know what the inflation and unemployment rates are going to be in October.