WASHINGTON -- On the day President Bush ended the gulf war, an adviser popped in to see a Democratic presidential hopeful.
"Today," the adviser cracked, "may not be the best day to announce your campaign for president."
Gallows humor is rampant among Democratic politicians right
now, and with good reason.
George Bush has emerged as the big winner of the gulf conflict. His handling of the crisis is being hailed as a wartime tour de force unlike any Washington has seen in 40 years.
His presidential job-approval ratings are the highest recorded in nearly a half-century. Polls indicate Mr. Bush would win re-election by a landslide if the vote were held now.
"It's a walk," barring some calamity, one administration aide confided Friday. The astounding speed and success of the allied military offensive and the unexpectedly low U.S. death toll have convinced even the most nervous Republican strategists that the gulf victory will pay rich political dividends for Mr. Bush in next year's campaign.
Republican officials are nurturing plans to keep the war's triumphal glow glimmering for months while the troops come home. Images of flag-waving Kuwaitis and Iraqi prisoners kissing American servicemen are safely stored on film for likely use in campaign commercials.
An administration official predicts the Bush re-election drive will feature a "very upbeat, principled, patriotic message: 'We have seen yet again just what this country is capable of, given strong, decisive leader ship and a clear strategy.' "
Democrats, meantime, fear that postwar politics will lead to defeat in 1992, for the sixth time in the last seven national elections.
"I don't believe I've ever seen the Democrats more discouraged as a group," commented a longtime aide to another Democratic presidential hopeful. "There's an absolute collapse of morale."
Democrats find a measure of solace in the fact that the election is still 20 months away and that Mr. Bush's victory could be tarnished during that time by events in the ever-volatile Middle East.
Finally, there is the lesson of history. The last president whose poll rating exceeded Mr. Bush's was Harry S. Truman, in 1945 as the second world war was ending. By the 1948 election, Mr. Truman was an underdog. His win over New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey was one of the great upsets in American politics.