WASHINGTON — The presidential election year has begun and the primaries are almost upon us. Right now, with better news from the Iraq war and the economy, the election "is the president's to lose." That's an assessment coming from both sides; indeed, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi made this admission at a Monitor breakfast recently.
But we must remember that when the senior Bush was president, he looked like a winner to most observers as he headed into the 1992 election year. He was still riding a wave of public approval that followed the successful Gulf War. Indeed, he and those around him became so confident of victory that they failed to deal with a declining economy. And so it was that a president who had started the year looking like a winner lost out that November to voters who'd become unhappy with him because of losing business and jobs.
Although the economic picture is brightening these days, it could turn dark again. And bad news from Iraq could send Bush's approval rating plummeting.
But an incumbent president does have an edge at the beginning of the race: because of his office he gets so much visibility. Every day the public is seeing him doing something or presiding over some function.
So now President Bush is the favorite over Democratic opponents. And among the Democrats it is Howard Dean who leads candidates for the nomination to become Bush's opponent.
Again and again I've heard Dr. Dean being compared to George McGovern and Jimmy Carter, two other long-shot Democratic candidates of the past. My own acquaintance with Dean is, admittedly, mainly from reading about him and watching him on TV, although I did have a close-up view of the Vermont governor at a Monitor breakfast a few years back. As a newsman I got to know Mr. McGovern and Mr. Carter well.
The McGovern I knew was a man with high moral standards who, in fact, had once been headed toward the ministry. He had a warm personality and a particularly good sense of humor. He was advocating benefits for those Americans who were in need of help.
But McGovern's strong opposition to the Vietnam War made him - in the eyes of the voters - a one-issue candidate. And as the antiwar candidate, he was wiped out by a wily President Nixon, who was somehow able to position himself on both sides of this controversial issue. Mr. Nixon said he was supporting the effort and the troops in Vietnam while, he asserted, he had a "plan" to pull the US out of that war.
The Carter I got to know was also a man with high principles. He taught in the Sunday School of his Plains, Ga., Baptist church and wrote in his autobiography about his "born again" religious experience. His views along this line certainly didn't hurt him with Christian voters in the South, where his strong victory in that region propelled him to a slim win over President Ford.
Personally I found Carter - like McGovern - very likable. There was an earnestness, a friendliness, and a lack of self-importance that made it difficult for reporters to keep the arm's-length distance one needs to remain objective in one's writing.
And Dean? What about him? Well, if I were up close to him day to day, as I was with McGovern and Carter, I might find Dean just as attractive and admire him just as much.
But viewed from a distance on TV - as most voters will, in the end, be judging and reacting to him - Dean leaves me with an odd feeling. I don't dislike him, but I don't like him either. If there is charisma in this man (and I keep reading that many voters are finding this quality) he certainly doesn't project it to me on television. Not yet, anyway.
But Dean could be just the kind of candidate who could beat George W. - if the president's public approval dips because of the war or the economy or both. When the president sets his jaw, he's a tough-looking fellow. Dean can set his jaw too. He could stand right up to Bush. Indeed, Dean is the only one among the Democratic candidates feisty enough to give Bush a hard time in debate.