THERE really is no good reason for George Bush to expect reelection. First, think of the precedents. He is the first vice president since Martin Van Buren in 1836 immediately to succeed a president by election. President Van Buren was plagued by an economic depression, caused in part by an unfavorable trade balance - with England, not Japan. In his reelection effort in 1840, Van Buren won the electoral vote of only seven of the 26 states.
President Bush is the first president since Herbert Hoover in 1928 to succeed a president of the same party by election. Failing at first to acknowledge the seriousness of economic troubles, President Hoover had to answer for a worldwide depression, accentuated by trade wars. He was crushed in his bid for reelection - winning the electoral vote of but six of the 48 states.
Second, there's Bush's record. He and his advisers were late in acknowledging the seriousness of the recession. He reneged on his "no new taxes" pledge, leaving many Republican candidates to restructure their 1990 campaigns. Joined by the executives who have made our auto industry what it is today, Bush's trade mission to Japan was a reenactment of "the ugly American." In the end, it even made the president queasy.
Bush's record in gaining support for his programs in Congress is the worst in modern times - his support registers 20 points on an annual average below Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, and Richard Nixon for their first three years, 30 points below Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, and Dwight Eisenhower. And the deficit? Like that irritating rabbit in TV commercials, it just keeps going and going and going.
The president's relatively high public-approval ratings at first could be explained by the fact that not much was expected of him and he met those expectations. Then he profited from vigorous public support for the perfect war - the good guys versus the bad guys. More recently, his public support has been on a dramatic downhill slide - not very encouraging for those eager Republican candidates hoping to take advantage of redistricting and a sour public mood toward incumbents to increase their numbers in Congress.
SO what has the president got going for him? Why should we not think that he will take his place in history alongside Van Buren and Hoover? And the answer is, of course: The Democratic Party - a Republican presidential candidate's best friend - will do what it can to prevent that outcome.
The reason for this counterproductive behavior is that Democrats have lost the means for making another choice. At least since 1968 they have built a process that prevents their strength from compensating for their weakness. The Democrats' strength is in electing state and local public officials - including members of Congress. Their weakness is in capitalizing on this success at the grass roots for nominating their strongest presidential candidates.
"Let it happen" is how the nominating process works don't interfere" is one of the working rules. This giant, decentralized apparatus that produces majorities in both houses of Congress and most state legislatures, that elects most of the governors and mayors, remains essentially inert for nominating a presidential candidate.
Meanwhile, back within the strength of the Democratic Party, state, local, and congressional candidates learn to survive weakness at the top. Unable or unwilling to influence the national process, these office-holding Democrats work their constituencies, often separating themselves from the presidential candidate. They know how to win even in the face of landslide White House victories by Republicans.
There are two national Democratic parties. One elects majorities to Congress; the other elects Republicans to the White House. The Democratic Congress works with and against the Republican president in a confrontational style of politics that has characterized Washington since 1968. Three-fifths of House Democrats and one-half of Senate Democrats in the 102nd Congress have served only with Republican presidents; 90 percent of House and Senate Democrats have served with just one Democratic president - Mr.
Carter (and did not much like that experience). It is not altogether certain that these Democrats know how to govern with one of their own.
In seeking reelection, Bush hopes to compensate for his own insufficiencies with the incapacity of the opposition either to see their opportunities or take them. Van Buren and Hoover were not so fortunate.