A UNITED STATES victory in Iraq will inevitably affect the outcome of the 1992 presidential election. Unless the victory is perceived by the public to have been too costly, George Bush will remain as he is now, a very popular president, and very likely to be swept back into office. A Panama or a Granada has only a short-lived political impact. But this confrontation in the Gulf has reached ``big-war'' proportions, with all Americans caught up in its progress. Even if it ends successfully within a few more weeks, it will dominate the thinking of voters through the next election.
George Bush was relatively unknown to many people when he was elected in 1988. With a major war victory under his belt he definitely will be a ``somebody,'' a somebody that potential Democratic candidates will be slow to take on.
I must add that several new political undercurrents will be active in '92 and years to come, affecting election results in unpredictable ways. I'm talking about the demise of the ``communism issue,'' which fueled the right wing for so many years. Where will the communist haters of yesterday go?
There are many Americans who, like Pat Buchanan, call themselves ``neo-conservatives'' and sound like the isolationists of World War II in their evaluation of the Gulf war as a war that the US should have refrained from entering. But these ``neo-conservatives'' are basically hawkish. Their reservations about this war - and about Bush for taking the US into it - will only surface again if the war drags on with high American casualties. Otherwise, they will be giving their support to Bush in '92.
Then there are the Democrats who were against taking the US into war. They loyally back the troops. But let this confrontation take on the appearance of another Vietnam and they will rise again with vehemence and anger.
Obviously, if the US is fighting a ``no-win'' war in the Gulf a year from now and large shipments of body bags are coming home, the Democrats could field a candidate who might win. Under those circumstances, Bush will be seen by some as a sure one-term president. Indeed, he might go down the way President Lyndon Johnson was rebuffed in 1968 when Johnson, in the face of widespread opposition to the Vietnam war, dropped out of the race for the presidential nomination.
There are Democrats, too, like George McGovern and George Mitchell, who see Bush's political gains from a successful outcome of the war as likely to be short-lived. They contend the recession will occupy the minds of voters - and that the Democrats will be the beneficiaries. A deep recession is difficult for any incumbent president to survive. But the economists I am listening to say this recession won't last long and the economy will likely be on the upturn by the time the next presidential election is fought.
I've made my prediction. I like Bush in '92 - if he is a president who has presided over a relatively quick triumph in the Gulf. If the economy takes a tailspin and holds there, Bush, who is riding high because of the war, is in an excellent position to push forward with a bold, anti-recession program.
Other political currents and cross-currents will affect the way people vote, in ways that are difficult to assess. For one, there is Bush's ``new world order.'' It sounds like he means the US is to play the major role in a rearrangement of power in the world which, as he sees it, will assure a lasting peace. His words remain enigmatic. And their implementation, whatever that may be, depends on success in the Gulf war.
Already dissent is being expressed about the possible import of Bush's global vision - particularly from the neo-conservatives who are reviving the isolationist words of long ago. They don't want the US ``to become the world's policeman.'' Further, many Democrats, especially those who voted against the war resolution, are opposed to heavy US involvement in reordering the world. Their leaders are saying the US should look inward and take care of its many domestic problems. They sound like the Republicans I grew up with.
But, short range, a victorious George Bush breaks through these imponderables and wins again.