ENOUGH time has passed since the Gulf War ended to judge its impact on George Bush's public standing. The conclusions reached have important implications for the 1992 campaign. Among Democrats, some decisions on whether or not to run will likely hinge on how strong the president now appears.
Throughout the confrontation with Iraq, we heard much about the so-called ``rally 'round the flag'' effect. The image suggests that in times of international crisis the public tenders unthinking emotional backing for the country's leaders and policies - ``my flag, right or wrong.'' Those pushing this interpretation maintain that because it's visceral, the rallying response isn't worth much and dissipates. This seems cynical about the public's judgment. During the Gulf conflict, as in past confrontations , many Americans saw reason to close ranks, whatever their thoughts on the soundness of the underlying policies and leadership. But that didn't mean they had no thoughts on the latter. It was certain that when the crisis and its emotion had passed, sober, reflective judgments on Bush's leadership would remain.
Some Democratic analysts insist that the president has come out of the conflict with his popularity little changed, and that he is vulnerable. Geoffrey Garin, whose firm polls for Democrats, cites data on public unease over the economy. In a Garin survey, ``three-quarters of the electorate said they were dissatisfied with economic conditions. When asked to rate the president's performance on economic issues, respondents were evenly divided between approval and disapproval. It all adds up to something le ss that superhero status.''
Garin cites findings from states where voters were asked whether they expected to reelect Bush or vote for the Democratic nominee - then asked the same thing about the incumbent Democratic senator (up for reelection). ``In each case Bush was at or just below 50 percent, and what's more running behind the incumbent senators.... So while George Bush gets an awful lot of personal respect from voters, the ... loyalty to him is still suspect.''
In a poll of May 7-8, CBS and the New York Times got a similar result: ``If George Bush runs for reelection in 1992, do you think you will probably vote for [him] or ... for the Democratic candidate?'' Bush was the choice of 49 percent, ``the Democrat'' of 22 percent, while 29 percent didn't answer, most wanting to know who the nominees will be. What's striking about these findings is that half the electorate say they plan to vote for the president regardless. Republican analysts cite other data to s upport their contention that Bush is much stronger politically. Pollster Richard Wirthlin finds it ``especially significant'' in a March survey, when Bush's overall approval was at 82 percent, that ``fully 56 percent ... strongly approved of what he was doing.''
Earlier in Bush's presidency, the argument was that, while a high proportion of Americans viewed him favorably, most did so mildly. Yet, Wirthlin notes, the proportion claiming they strongly back Bush now far exceeds any such support Reagan received. The highest approval for Reagan which Wirthlin recorded was 75 percent.
Partisan hopes and fears aside, it does appear Bush has added depth to his already-broad approval. His one low mark involved a sense that his core commitments lacked sufficient firmness. The ``wimp'' charge was always partisan invention, but Bush was seen as an indecisive pragmatist. His resolute conduct of the war addressed this weakness.
In late February and early March, Bush's approval scores soared into the high 80s. Still, the results which polls now show are more striking. Press coverage in late March and April had shifted sharply from that at war's end. Bush was roundly criticized for his handling of plight of the Kurdish people, and their suffering engaged Americans deeply. But even against this backdrop of problems, Bush's approval remained very high - 81 percent on May 7-8. Over two thirds of Democrats approved.
No modern president has looked so strong 18 months before election day.