THE 51st United States presidential election may well not be decided until after October's debates. Bill Clinton still has his problems, and voters are still trying to figure out what kind of president he would make. But the story thus far is that President Bush is losing the election. He is losing, especially, among younger voters and among the so-called "Reagan Democrats." Far and away his biggest problem is that voters are holding him accountable for the weak economic performance of the past few years .
Both 1984 and 1988 were excellent years for the economy - the best two years of the past decade - and Ronald Reagan and Mr. Bush were rewarded handsomely at the polls. Not so this year, and voters, acting in accord with what might be called the retrospective punishment model, always punish the incumbent when the economy is stagnant - as Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, among others, learned.
But Mr. Clinton is winning and Mr. Bush is losing for a number of reasons. Several factors are going against the president, and he is now in too deep a hole to make a comeback by Nov. 3.
1. Bush hurt his reelection chances by insisting for too long that economic recovery was just around the corner. It made him look insensitive at best and like Mr. Hoover at worst. His economic game plan has been ridiculed by most economists, by Ross Perot, and even by such traditional GOP advisers as Milton Friedman.
The Republicans hid their economic advisers at the national party convention in Houston, for good reason. There are hints that Nicholas Brady, Michael Boskin, and Richard Darman will all be gone if the president somehow manages to win. That alone says a lot about Bush's predicament. Clearly, this year's election is a referendum on Bush's economic leadership.
2. Americans are worried not only about the economy but also about the declining quality of life here, and Bush has had virtually nothing to offer in response. Clinton offers at least a new chance, a new approach, and, on occasion, he skillfully appeals for sacrifice and new national commitments to service and community. Better than Bush, Clinton appreciates the national yearning for inspiration and rededication.
3. Bush is having a lot of trouble running as George Bush, yet he compounded his problems and made himself look rather silly by trying to run as "Harry Truman." It now turns out that Bush himself voted against Truman back in 1948. It seemed an admission of failure, just as his firing of two White House chiefs of staff in one year has signaled another type of failure. Indeed, his appeal to James Baker to come to his rescue further confirmed failed domestic and economic leadership.
4. Clinton has gained by Bush's largely ineffective strategy of trying to blame Congress for his woes. To be sure, Congress deserves some blame. But Americans are tired of both parties and both branches pointing their fingers at each other. Many voters understand that Congress will still be controlled by Democrats come next year. Thus Bush would face four more years of the same system of divided government.
5. The cold war has indeed ended, and the president and his predecessor deserve some credit. But Bush's egregiously egocentric credit-taking for winning the cold war has lost him points. Obviously, every president since Truman and every Congress deserve credit, as do countless freedom fighters in the old Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe. A credit hog winds up with little or no credit and a respect deficit to boot.
6. Moreover, Bush has had little success in defining or shaping the "new world order." Also, the long-awaited "peace dividend" somehow got lost in the Gulf war, the S&L bailout, and other claims on the US treasury. Clinton at least would make more significant cuts in the defense budget and reallocate more to education and civilian technologies. Bush wants to keep defense spending relatively close to the $300 billion level for the next several years, while Clinton argues for an investment in people and fo r an industrial policy.
7. Bush loses points for having appointed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Among women voters, the backlash will probably be greater on election day than anyone anticipates. Clinton will benefit, especially in key electoral states such as California, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, where prominent Democratic women are also on the ballot and doubtless will bring out anti-Bush voters.
8. Clinton scored especially well with the selection of Sen. Al Gore as his running mate. In contrast to Dan Quayle, Mr. Gore gets a favorable press, high ratings among the voters, and a high score for being prepared for the job of president. Vice President Quayle continues to be a liability for Bush, as even James Baker, Republican speech writer Peggy Noonan, and the National Review editors keep telling Bush.
9. The Democrats had an excellent convention and were more unified and more moderate than in the past. Clinton stood up to Jesse Jackson and Jerry Brown and said an occasional "no" to special interest groups. This has helped Clinton earn credit among mainstream voters. Ross Perot's surprise withdrawal and his favorable comments about the Democrats helped give the party an unprecedented bounce. The Republicans had what can only be called a lackluster national convention, and both their platform and some o f their key speakers, such as Patrick Buchanan, had the effect of narrowing rather than broadening their political base.
10. Clinton and Gore will also benefit from debates with Bush and Quayle. Bush and his handlers are plainly apprehensive about these debates, for good reason. Seventy-five to 80 percent of the voters will have already made up their minds as to how they will vote. Yet millions of viewers who are still undecided about how they'll vote, or even whether they'll vote, will be watching. Bush, to be charitable, is neither an effective speaker nor debater. Clinton, despite a penchant for being long-winded, is mo re effective. And Gore will doubtless be a tough match for Quayle. The Democrats should win all three of the probable forthcoming debates, which could ensure victory on Nov. 3.
Finally, the president does not seem to be enjoying the job any longer. He became testy, defensive, and sometimes even shrill in the earlier combative tangling with Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Perot. It should be noted, too, that Bush's negatives rose rapidly during the muddy attacks and counterattacks he had with Perot this past spring and early summer. An incumbent president can take advantage of incumbency by using the bully pulpit to educate, inspire, and help unlock the best impulses in the nation. Bush ha s failed in this.
Clinton, in contrast, appears more cheerful and upbeat. While the revived controversy over his draft record has darkened his trail lately, he seems generally to be enjoying what has to have been a long and exacting campaign. It is plainly Clinton and not Bush who is this year's nominee for Happy Warrior.