AT this point it is interesting to speculate about the state of the nation had it been President Dukakis instead of President Bush after the counting last November. Let's not forget: At convention time a year ago Michael Dukakis held a decided edge over George Bush. Indeed, some of my writing colleagues had already, in their columns, put the Massachusetts governor into the White House.
It is arguable that ``President'' Dukakis, working with a Democratic controlled Congress, would, by now, have put in motion some tax-hike legislation that would, in the eyes of many observers, be dealing ``responsibly'' with the massive budget deficit.
It is also arguable that Mr. Dukakis as president might have had the same kind of depressive effect on the national economy that he clearly has had on the economy of his own state.
His governorship there has, indeed, fallen on bad times. Even his own Democrats are beginning to disown him. He is a good man and an able man. He deserves better from his own constituents. But his political downfall in Massachusetts has to be charged to his stewardship.
And I think it tells us that he might have been a disaster as a president. Looking at Governor Dukakis's undeft hand at the tiller, it is reasonable to predict that a ``President'' Dukakis's tax increase might well by now have slowed down our economy and headed us toward a recession.
A joke going the rounds in Washington is that the ``worst nightmare'' of Democratic national chairman Ron Brown is that Mike Dukakis will run again for president. I find it even more of a joke that the very same Democratic leaders who once hailed Dukakis as a little giant of a politician now are spreading this rationale for the defeat: That Dukakis was a pygmy as a candidate and that it was due to his inadequacies that a Republican is still president. ``Bush didn't win it,'' they assert. ``No, sir. Mike Dukakis lost it. We could have won with a different candidate.''
Let's get it straight. Defeat never enhances a candidate's reputation for being a winner. But it must be said that the Massachusetts governor provided a never-give-up effort. Even if I'm the only one to say it, I still will assert: Michael Dukakis was valiant in defeat. And again I will contradict the conventional wisdom: I think both men were very capable candidates - and that Mr. Bush won simply because the voters perceived him as being the stronger and the one more likely to keep the country on course.
This rationale may be difficult for many readers to accept. Yet it helps immensely in understanding President Bush after six months in office. The appraisals all seem to show bafflement. ``Where,'' the pundits ask in one way or another, ``did this man come from? Where is the wimp, the political hack we wrote about during the campaign? How did this weak sister of yesterday blossom into such a competent president - and a chief executive who is more popular, at this point, than any president since John F. Kennedy?''
This struggle to explain a ``new'' and ``changing'' George Bush started with assessments of Bush by those who really didn't know the man. I have known him for years, even back to when he was first talking about running for a congressional seat. There never was a ``George the Wimp,'' or a George Bush of changing coloration. George Bush was always a bright, steady, not-too-articulate fellow who knew where he wanted to go and, once there, felt he could get the job done. He always had this joshing sense of humor. And he was always fearless. How quickly his war-record heroics were forgotten.
The old George Bush was quite a fellow. He has remained that way over the years, right up through the campaign. Today in the White House, he is the same old George Bush. He has a long way to go to show whether he can be a great president or, for that matter, an overall competent president. But even his severest critics are conceding that he's off to a most promising start.
What really flabbergasts these critics is how comfortable Bush obviously feels in the presidency. And that doesn't mean he's taking it at all easy there. He's traveling more than any president during the beginning of an administration. And he's into one or another project every day he's home. Yet he gives the appearance of a man who thinks his exceedingly demanding job is a piece of cake. His wife, Barbara, gives the same impression.