Don't Overestimate Bush's Weakness

As Campaign '92 moves into Super Tuesday, President Bush - while he has problems - isn't as wounded as he is portrayed to be. The voters' discontent, though real, has been exaggerated, and the Democrats still must produce a strong challenger. Bush seemed vulnerable in 1988, too.

WE'RE right in the middle of the season when, under contemporary rules, the bulk of presidential nominating convention delegates get chosen. Five states - New Hampshire, South Dakota, Maryland, Georgia, and Colorado - have already held primaries, and six states their caucuses, at least on the Democratic side. South Carolina votes tomorrow. Super Tuesday comes next week, when another 11 states will hold primaries (8) or caucuses (3).

With all this electoral action, the presidential contests have become much clearer than they were just a month or two ago. Obviously, American voters haven't yet rendered their final judgments; but they have said a lot about the electoral direction in which they are headed, given the choices before them. A summary of what they have said is in order.

1. The country is discontented - but not uniquely so. Many Americans are dissatisfied - especially with the economic side of things - and somewhat pessimistic about the future. The national mood began souring notably last fall, and it has stayed sour through the early 1992 balloting. "Time for a change" sentiment is much more potent than it was four years ago.

Still, the extent of the discontent is being wildly overstated by a press and political community which, in this electronic age, seems to have lost historical perspective almost entirely.

How quickly we forget. In August 1988, the press was making much of an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that asked respondents which of two positions was closer to their own: "The next president should continue along the path of Ronald Reagan's policies," or "The next president should change direction in dealing with our nation's problems." Sixty-one percent said "change direction."

Such poll findings can be highly misleading. Virtually every time a variant of the question has been asked, going back to Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, a majority has endorsed a shift from the incumbent's policies. That hasn't meant, however, that they preferred some specified, real-world alternative to the incumbent.

2. The country is discontented - and conservative. Many Americans are dissatisfied with things as they are, but the nature of their dissatisfaction has hardly moved the country from a generally conservative course. We see this in the candidacies that have come to the fore.

On the Republican side, the moderately conservative incumbent is being challenged vigorously from the right. On the Democratic side, the two front-runners are men who have consciously backed away from the party's modern-day liberalism. Clinton is the only Democrat in the race who supported Mr. Bush's use of force in the Persian Gulf; and for a year before beginning his presidential run he chaired the somewhat rightward leaning Democratic Leadership Council. Paul Tsongas has broken with his party on a bro ad assortment of issues - saying, for example, that as president he would probably veto a tax bill like the one House Democrats just passed. He strongly backs nuclear power.

3. The Democrats still don't have a strong candidate in sight. Bill Clinton and Paul Tsongas are the front-runners, but no Democratic entrant has yet built a national following. Not one of the announced candidates is deemed "the American best qualified to be president" by more than a minuscule fraction of Democrats. This is the weakest field presented by a major American party in modern history.

Some politicians benefit from good fortune. George Bush has thus benefited three times in his White House days: When Ronald Reagan made him his vice president in 1980; when Reagan anointed him as his successor in 1987 and 1988; and now when the Democrats have done everything a Republican could ever ask of them.

4. Bush's position is not "strong," but neither is it "highly vulnerable." The president surely has his share of political problems, some self-inflicted, others accruing from circumstances significantly beyond his control. Among the latter: the fact that his party has held the presidency for 12 years running; and that the economy, while technically out of recession, has been standing still for two years.

The remarkable thing, then, is probably not that various measures of Bush's political standing show marked decline, but that they have remained substantially high. After five months in which he has taken a pretty ferocious pounding, Bush's approval stands around the 40 percent mark - where, I suspect, it will subsequently be seen to have bottomed out.

Few political figures in modern times have had more of a roller coaster ride politically than George Bush. If one compares his position now to what it was one year ago, he looks weak. But if one compares it to that of the winter, spring, and early summer of 1988, he looks fairly healthy. Trial heat pairings bounce around, but the sampling contained in the accompanying Chart 1 is, I believe, reasonably representative of where Bush stood for much of the 1988 campaign.

When Pat Buchanan got 37 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire GOP primary Feb. 18, it was, we were assured by a pride of commentators, a "devastating blow." Of course, much more apocalyptic things were said after Bob Dole's win over Bush in the 1988 Iowa caucuses.

At that time, Bob Schieffer of CBS News thought it was for Bush a "nightmare of nightmares." Larry Eichel of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that Dole had built his campaign on "a single premise ... that George Bush, once cut, will bleed to death. Bush ... got cut by Dole here [Iowa] last night - and cut far more seriously than anyone imagined possible." Bernard Shaw of CNN was relatively restrained, calling the Iowa result simply "a stunning upset."

Trial heats this year show Bush in a better position than he was in '88. He has been shown leading every conceivable challenger - the announced Democratic candidates, and such unannounced favorites as Dick Gephardt and Mario Cuomo - in virtually every poll pairing. The accompanying Chart 2 provides some examples.

A chief reason why Bush has survived bouts of dissatisfaction with his "wimp factor," lack of "vision," preppy syntax, etc., is shown by the data in Chart 3.

Now at the lowest point in his presidency, 82 percent of the public find Bush "decent," 76 percent "knowledgeable," 71 percent "moral," 68 percent "intelligent." The softer edges, which have often hurt Bush on the "leadership" dimension, have helped in personal terms.

All in all, at this point in the campaign George Bush is down but by no means out.

He remains the favorite - though now in no small part as a result of the Democrats' failure to bring forth a candidate widely seen as presidential.

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