SINCE we last took a look at the American political scene in this column, there have been several minor changes on the surface worth notice and one great big important change in the background which affect everyone's calculations and prospects. The big change in the background is in the general perception of the American economy's prospects.
Until not very long ago the general tendency was to assume that at some point between now and election day in 1988 the Reagan boom would flatten, stumble, or collapse. In other words, each party would be searching for the candidate who could most plausibly convince the American electorate that he or she would be the best person to salvage the economy.
That perception has changed. This is being called the second-longest United States boom since World War II. By the end of the year it will be the longest. And by the latest estimates and forecasts, it still enjoys a reasonable chance of surviving through next election day. That means that when the Republicans and Democrats go to their conventions next summer the party managers will be looking for the candidate who can best convince the electorate that he can keep the boom going, or at least not spoil it.
This change in economic perception helps the Republicans. The electorate in general tends to look to Republicans for prosperity - and to Democrats for relief from depression. The New Deal and the long Democratic Party ascendency from Franklin Roosevelt through Lyndon Johnson was built on protecting the less privileged from the damage caused by the Great Depression of the late '20s and the '30s.
Right now the one visible storm cloud on the economic horizon is the possibility of a jump in the price of oil - due to Mr. Reagan's naval sortie into the Gulf. Real war in the Gulf, including an oil embargo, could help pull the plug on the economy. If Mr. Reagan is politically astute, he will find a way to back out of the Gulf before there is any major jump in oil prices.
Meanwhile, on the surface the Republican picture continues to be dominated by the candidacies of Vice-President George Bush and Senate Republican leader Robert Dole. No other Republican has been able to break above the 10 percent level in the ratings. The Paul Laxalt, Alexander Haig, Jack Kemp, and Pierre duPont candidacies have all been able to raise some funds, enough to keep going, and some enthusiasm, but no real momentum.
Mr. Bush still leads Mr. Dole in the polls, but the margin is narrowing. The latest New York Times/CBS poll showed Bush down four points since May, to 34 percent, and Dole up four points, to 23 percent. Bush seemed to come through the Iran-contra hearings without damage, but that same poll showed 38 percent of those polled think he is ``boring,'' while only 8 percent called him ``exciting.'' Bush has negative momentum, Dole is on the rise.
As for the Democrats, if they could assume there would be a downturn before election day, they could run almost anyone and expect to win. But with the pouring of vast investment funds by foreigners, particularly Japanese, into the US economy, the prospects for that preelection bust dwindle. The more they dwindle, the more the Democrats need a candidate who can rouse excitement and enthusiasm. Those are two capabilities that none of the existing Democratic candidates have yet been able to demonstrate.
It seems a reasonable conclusion of the moment that the Democrats may well blow their otherwise reasonable prospects in 1988 by failure to find a candidate of sufficient stature to be able to trade political punches with Senator Dole, a formidable puncher. The most visible Democrats of the moment are Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts and Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, but few party ``pros'' think that either is yet big enough to meet the needs of their party. The picture for Democrats is not as focused as it is for the Republicans.
There is still New York Gov. Mario Cuomo in the wings; he might change his mind. There is Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, who has not yet said a final no. And what about Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee? Is he too young and too new? He might catch on.
For the Republicans, it is almost bound to be Bush or Dole. But no one knows who the winner in that race will be running against.