WASHINGTON. — THE MOST IMPORTANT question Americans now face is not who emerges from this week's elections with dominant power, but whether George Bush has lost irretrievably the ability to govern America.
There are signs that, less than two years in the White House, Mr. Bush represents another failed presidency that cannot be saved, even by a war against Iraq.
This president has put himself in a position where millions of Republicans will never trust him again, millions of Democrats will never fear him again, and the rest of the people will view his every statement and action with skepticism.
Mr. Bush suffered a terrible defeat in the great budget-deficit reduction debacle, which is why he so often found himself in humiliating circumstances during his recent campaigning. Some Republicans simply asked him to stay away. Others decided not to show up at meetings where Mr. Bush was supposed to endorse them. Some who showed up went to great pains to tell the audience how and why they disagreed with the president.
Now he faces a Congress in which he controls fewer votes and must deal with a Democratic Party emboldened by Tuesday's successes.
Even as Mr. Bush is being blistered by GOP conservatives, he is losing the aura of ''Republican moderate.'' For a few months he was touted as the man who could lure more black votes to the Republican camp than any GOP president since Dwight Eisenhower. After his ill-considered veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1990, at least 90 per cent of blacks think Mr. Bush is their enemy.
I can't think of any domestic issue where any group of Americans of any class or color is saying that Mr. Bush is doing a great job.
The most damaging thing about him is that his actions too often belie his rhetoric. One theme of his campaign speeches was to hurl fire and brimstone at Iraq's Saddam Hussein, calling him more brutal than Hitler, declaring that he was ''fed up'' with Iraq's treatment of American hostages, saying somberly that we should ''just wait and see'' what he is going to do about it. And, after all that, declaring that he was not preparing the American people for war.
I do not believe that President Bush would cynically say to himself, ''I can get the people's minds off my domestic failures if I attack Saddam Hussein. If I kick his butt the way I did Geraldine Ferraro's, I'll be a hero again.'' I do believe that some of his unwise advisers -- he clearly has a few -- will ensure that he never forgets the alleged truism that the people always rally round a president in times of war. Before Mr. Bush swallows that line he ought to refurbish his memory of the Vietnam War and Lyndon Johnson.
The Persian Gulf crisis is another reflection of Mr. Bush's leading with his lips, talking himself so far out on a limb that he and Mr. Hussein seem destined to do a deadly desert dance.
If the U.S. can obliterate Iraq in a few days, with modest American casualties, Mr. Bush can come out looking like a leader. If war turns out to be even a semi-disaster, with lots of U.S. deaths, oil going to $100 a barrel, the U.S. economy wrenched to the point where critical social needs are unmet, then this presidency will be seen as the debacle of all our political disasters.