New Hampshire: a Whiff of Vulnerability

NEW Hampshire voters sure had their say. So much for the political process getting in the way of citizens' expressing their will.

George Bush says he heard them. That is the expected reply. We shall see, in coming weeks, what that reply means.

President Bush had already had warnings. On one night eight days before the election, according to independent pollster Richard Bennett, Bush support plummeted. "The people saw he wasn't going to help them," Mr. Bennett says. "They saw he came to New Hampshire just because he needed a vote. It was a Monday night ... Feb. 10. It just went ... the extra 20 points just went."

The warning flags have been up elsewhere. In California - at the other side of the country, and at the far end of the primary race, June - Bush's approval rating is down to 35 percent.

Other images of vulnerability have been there to see: the wipeout of the president's Maine coastal residence in a recent storm; his falling ill in Japan; his exaggerated aggressiveness on the campaign trail.

Bush railed against "liberal Democrats."

New Hampshire Democrats didn't vote for Bush's rival, Patrick Buchanan. George Mitchell, the Senate Democratic majority leader who Bush says wanted him not to attack Saddam Hussein, didn't vote for Buchanan.

New Hampshire Republicans did.

Bush will make a mistake if he follows the negative strategy of his 1988 campaign, which was to make sure his opponent lost. And he should hold in check his gut reaction to challenge, which is to crank up his energy level until his elbows start to flap.

The Bush-Quayle argument has to be clear. The eight years of "Republican" economic recovery that the Reagan-Bush administrations boasted of in the '80s have become two years of "Republican" economic stagnation to launch the '90s. If credit, then blame. Or neither.

Americans do tend to want to think well of their leaders. Even the much maligned incumbent members of Congress tend to get reelected with nearly 70 percent of the vote - and that isn't just because of their financial and franking privilege edge over challengers.

But even incumbents have no "right" of office. New Hampshirites cared less about Bush's wanting their vote than they cared about generating jobs.

On the Democratic side, Paul Tsongas's eight-point victory margin over Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas was not enough to shake Mr. Tsongas free of the pack. Tsongas presents himself as a liberal who favors economic expansion: How will that sell in the South? Maryland, a liberal Democratic state, may begin to tell.

Mr. Clinton is more a progressive centrist: Will Clinton, having taken his hits on the issues of marital fidelity and the draft, do better in the Midwest, where the economic downturn has been less severe?

Tom Harkin of Iowa has been as dour as the man with a pitchfork in Grant Wood's "American Gothic" painting.

Bob Kerrey of Nebraska intones too much like a Kennedy and has yet to find a campaign voice; his war- veteran promise has delivered him no more than John Glenn's astronaut celebrity brought the Ohioan in 1984.

Jerry Brown, whose minimalist personal style means he needs less money to run on than his rivals, will likely take his macrobiotic form of politics all the way to the final in his home state of California.

New Hampshire did not disappoint us. We have a race. In both parties.

But Bush's vulnerability is troubling for the governance of this country. Will he and the Congress thrash about over the next eight months until the election? Assuming Bush gets reelected - still the likeliest outcome - have we glimpsed a glass jaw? What would that say about his ability to govern through 1996?

The president's achievements have been in foreign, not domestic, policy. He has to show that he has a feel for where America is hurting economically, and a sense of direction for the social and economic challenges of the '90s.

New Hampshire sent a message: The president hasn't been listening.

America is in no America First mood, whatever Buchanan's vote. Japan-bashing, liberal-bashing, is silly.

Bush's chief vulnerability is the sharp whiff of vulnerability itself. Will his authority in overseeing the Middle East peace talks, for example, now be tested?

He should gather his best advisers, particularly Secretary of State James Baker III, around him and set a steady course for the country.

And he should take a vow not to hold a capital-gains tax cut aloft as if it were the elixir for all of America's problems.

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