IF George Bush were to lose the election on Nov. 3, it would be a tremendous upset. No matter that Bill Clinton is ahead in the polls. The expectation has to be that Bush will win.
Now, whose expectation are we referring to? The pundits'?
In 1980 about this time, California pollster Mervin Field convened seven or eight senior political writers and presidency watchers over a Chinese dinner in Washington. A straw poll was taken. All but one "expert" picked Jimmy Carter to win.
The power of the incumbency, it was argued, gave the officeholder a two- or three-point advantage over the challenger. The Reagan forces tried to mitigate that advantage: They warned that Carter had up his sleeve an "October surprise," a hostage-release deal. This served to impugn Carter's character by suggesting he would resort to political expediency to save his office and at the same time pointed up his helplessness before the cruel Ayatollah's whims. Carter was frozen in place. Subsequently it has be en alleged that the Reagan camp was itself involved in efforts to tamper with the release of the hostages.
At the Chinese dinner checkpoint, the Reagan/Carter debates had not been held. The country's poor economic performance, Carter's overconcentration on the minutiae of governing, his making himself "hostage to the hostages" contributed to his loss. But Reagan won the election in the debates and Carter lost it there.
In 1988, Bush had the election in hand but clinched it in the debates against Dukakis. This time around, I'm not sure Bush wants to debate Bill Clinton. If he's really behind he will.
In 1980, I recall asking Jim Baker, who was Reagan's debate negotiator as he is Bush's now, whether he was sure Carter really wanted any debates. His eyes asked, What does this guy know that I should know? If Carter thought he needed to debate, it would be a sign of self-perceived weakness. It was Reagan who needed the debates to establish himself as a credible candidate.
The Constitution does not require debates. Baker has already asserted the right of decision by insisting on a quick take-it-or-leave-it debate schedule with the Clinton forces. When it is attacking Clinton's character, why should the White House give the Democrat the opportunity to show he can be presidential in a one-on-one with the president? Only if the risk of losing the election is great enough to offset the risk of losing the debates should Bush debate Clinton.
The media and citizens' groups would argue otherwise: that issues are more important than individual politicians' prospects and that candidates have a moral obligation to debate.
Elections are about power. A politician's ideas have no currency if he is not elected. Even those who wage campaigns of ideas do so to incite at least a whiff of influence.
The likely outcome of one or two Bush/Clinton debates would be to make the contest closer. That, too, is a matter of expectations. If Clinton does only reasonably well, it will help him. Bush can less afford mistakes - but his record shows an able performance. Two debates are less risky than one debate. A third debate is unnecessary for the public, but the candidate perceived to be behind may want one.
If Bush loses the debates and the election, it would be said that the conservative Reagan revolution has run out of steam. That would not be so: The Reagan values are a permanent part of the American political psyche. One struggling Democratic administration could bring the GOP right back into power in 1996.
A Clinton victory would mean, among other things, that the pendulum of Supreme Court nominations could begin to swing back the other way: Mario Cuomo to the Supreme Court is an anti-Clinton flag in the South and a pro-Clinton flag in the North.
A Clinton victory would likely mean a return to a domestic economic focus at a time when economics is more international than ever. Does Clinton know what to do about the weakened dollar, held hostage by foreign currencies, which Bush ignores?
A Clinton victory would likely have a Democratic national sweep to support it. A Bush victory would likely put him into deeper opposition against a Democratic-controlled Congress.