Why Bush will have coattails

This is the time of year when some of my columnist colleagues look back on the past year and own up to blunders. It's a moment of contrition from writers who are expected always to express cloudless certainty.

I could doubtless match them with my miscues from last year. But today, I would like to point out a really big blooper I made back in early February 1991, only a few weeks before the end of the Gulf War.

I wrote that the prospective victory would "dominate the thinking of voters through the next [1992] election.... George Bush will remain as he is now a very popular president, and very likely to be swept back into office."

We know what happened there. With the end of the war that quickly followed, a popular war president soon lost his luster and high poll ratings when he failed to deal effectively with a dip in the economy.

And now I have laid myself open to committing a similar blooper by coming up with the opinion, in a recent column, that the present President Bush's war-related popularity will help Republicans running in the off-year election. And I will forecast now - if I haven't made myself clear on this earlier - that this president, because of this war-related popularity, is well positioned politically to gain a second term.

And why haven't I learned from my previous misjudgment? Because I really have learned: The earlier Bush's quick loss of his grasp on public favor came after the war. Yes, it could happen to George W., too. But there's every indication that this war against terrorism will go on and on - certainly into the 2002 elections and probably into the next presidential election.

So, as I see it, GW's situation is different from his father's. In the global war he is engaged in, one in which he has pledged to carry on against those who "harbor" terrorists as well as the terrorists themselves, Bush looks to me like a man who could well be fighting this war through two terms - and then leaving it to a successor as his main responsibility.

Also, George W., unlike his father, is keeping alert to economic problems. How about Enron? To me, That looks like a bipartisan scandal that won't rub off too much on Bush.

I don't know why I thought the senior Bush's popularity would hang on after the Gulf War. I could well have remembered that, when peace comes, the American public quickly goes back to business as usual and forgets its war heroes. Then there was the glaring example of Winston Churchill's quick fall in political favor among people who had loved him during the war. Gripped by postwar economic problems, the British turned to someone else to lead them.

I think, too, that the remoteness of the Gulf War contributed to the ease with which Americans turned to other things. They simply hadn't gotten that much involved emotionally.

But back to predictions: When looking back over years of breakfast meetings with public officials, I recall two forecasts that really stand out - not because they turned out to be so bad but because they were so good.

First was the forecast in September 1990 by Les Aspin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, that President Bush and his counselors had lost patience with the economic embargo it had imposed on Iraq and had decided to go to war.

Shortly afterward we were in that brief war. But Aspin was the first to predict publicly, through reporters at this breakfast, that war was definitely on its way.

Aspin, also at that breakfast, had predicted a "short war." Later, at a breakfast in early March of 1991, he said, "I thought it would be short but not this short."

The other exceedingly good prediction I vividly remember was what John White, that highly regarded Democratic political chieftain, said would happen if Bill Clinton became president. Mr. White, a former Democratic national chairman, was at a breakfast right after Clinton had been hit by the Gennifer Flowers scandal in the 1992 primaries. White was a close friend of Clinton, but he told breakfasters that because of the Arkansas governor's "woman problems," Clinton would be a "nightmare" if he became president.

White was afraid that further scandals would crop up in a Clinton administration. And he was so very, very right.

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