Was musing on his Democratic...

SEN. PAUL SARBANES

February 23, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

SEN. PAUL SARBANES was musing on his Democratic Party'spresidential prospects in 1992 in the wake of a presumed victory in the Persian Gulf for the Republican commander in chief.

"It could be like the British voting out Winston Churchill just after Germany surrendered in 1945," he said. Dream on, I thought.

A number of Democratic politicians have recently dreamed out loud that George Bush might be "another Winston Churchill" in 1992. Some of them, unlike Sarbanes, seem to actually believe it. In addition to being a former student in Britain, Paul is a student of British political history, and he knows that 1992 in America is not going to be like Great Britain in 1945. He qualified The Churchill Dream with, "Of course, it had been a long time. . . "

I don't know whether he meant the war had lasted a long time or that it had been a long time between general elections. Both are true. The war had been going on six years in 1945, and there had not been a general election since 1935.

Those are factors that do tend to produce a throw-the-ins-out mood -- and neither is going to be present in 1992. At least, I assume the war will be long over by then; and, of course, we had our equivalent of the election of a prime minister in 1988.

Another reason the Democrats' Churchill Dream is misplaced is the difference between electoral systems. In Britain the voters chose only among local candidates for Parliament; the party with the most winners then elects its leader prime minister. We choose among individual candidates for president. Had we used the parliamentary system in 1988, 1984 and, I think, 1980 (those statistics are a little hard to figure out), our last three presidents would have been Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.

(Or Tip O'Neill, Jim Wright and Tom Foley. President Jim Wright? This dream's gone on long enough! I just woke up screaming!)

If George Bush were another Winston Churchill, and if the U.S. voters in 1992 were as fed up as the Brits of 1945, that still would not produce a Democratic victory in the presidential contest.

Why? Because the Democrats have no Clement Attlee (who became prime minister in 1945). Though Attlee headed the Labor Party and Churchill the Conservative Party, they served together during the war in an all-party "National Government." Attlee was as identified with the war effort in the voters' mind as Churchill. Where is the Democrat who voters think of as a full partner of Bush's in the Persian Gulf? Because almost every Democrat of stature in Congress -- and all the leaders -- voted against going to war, the party has no Attlee.

One of the great all-time post-election comments by a loser came out of that 1945 election. When the votes were in, Clementine Churchill said to her husband, "It may well be a blessing in disguise."

Churchill replied, "At the moment, it seems quite effectively disguised."

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