PRESIDENT BUSH'S job approval rating is to Washington what the Dow Jones industrial average is to Wall Street. It's a good indicator of the current mood of the place. But it's not always a good predictor of the future. Right now, Washington is bullish on Bush. The president's approval rating stood at 91 percent in the latest USA Today poll, which is a record for any president since polling beWilliamSchneidergan in the 1930s. The minute Bush declared victory in the Persian Gulf on Feb. 27, he was widely believed to have won re-election for 1992. Whether that actually happens depends on two things: the status quo's holding up, and even improving, by November 1992, and the Democrats' failing to nominate a credible challenger. Either will be enough to ensure Bush's re-election.
Commentators are talking about a new George Bush, a man of strong, unequivocal beliefs who is able to rally the nation. But the new George Bush is still the old George Bush -- status quo president. What's new is that the status quo, at least in foreign policy, is extremely good.
What Bush did in the Persian Gulf was restore the status quo. He promised that Iraq's act of brutal aggression against Kuwait would not stand, and it didn't. But the United States stopped short of toppling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and America shows little inclination to try to shape a new status quo in the Middle East. Unlike President Reagan, Bush doesn't talk about exporting democracy or free enterprise. In fact, his New World Order is really a policy of defending the international status quo against aggressors who would disrupt it.
Bush is unlike Reagan in another respect. He is not motivated by ideological conviction. He is motivated by moral principle, which is quite different. Moral principles are unifying. By defining the Persian Gulf commitment as moral rather than ideological, Bush held the nation together and undermined liberal opposition to the war.
Ideological convictions are divisive. Reagan had a large constituency of people who believed in him and supported him no matter what he did, even through the Iran-contra scandal. He also had opponents who never supported him, no matter what he did, even when the economy was booming. Very few people either love or hate Bush. That's why he can go much higher than Reagan in the polls. And, if things go wrong, much lower.
Bush is popular because he is successful. If he can sustain the peace, and add prosperity to it, he will very likely be unbeatable in 1992.
Republicans have even higher expectations, however. "I think it could be bigger than 1984," when Reagan won re-election in a landslide, said Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "I think it could be 1980 (when the GOP took control of the Senate) all over again."
That's asking a lot. Generally, when Republican presidents are re-elected because people are happy with the status quo (1956, 1972, 1984), they re-elect congressional Democrats, too. After all, they're part of the status quo. Why should 1992 be any different?
Because Bush, the argument goes, can unleash his Republican Guard against Democrats in Congress who opposed the war. Gramm argues that the Jan. 12 vote to authorize the war "fits a pattern that is 20 years old. . . . It says to the nation once again that Democrats cannot be trusted to define the destiny of America."
The problem with that is that most members of Congress have a strong personal relationship with their constituents. Most antiwar Democrats will be able to explain their vote as a matter of conscience, particularly 20 months after it happened. The damage is likely to be greatest for Democrats facing new electorates, either as a result of redistricting or because they are running for a different office.
The Democrats' biggest problem is at the presidential level. They have to find a candidate who crosses the threshold of credibility on national security. Most leading Democrats in Congress voted against the war. Most leading Democrats outside Congress lack foreign policy experience.
Those who can pass the commander-in-chief test usually have trouble getting nominated. And it looks as though they will have even more trouble next year. California Democrats are considering a proposal to select up to 40 percent of their convention delegates at party caucuses at the very beginning of the 1992 primary season. Only those who have performed services for the party could become delegates.
Supporters of the plan -- which does not require legislative approval -- contend that it would enable California to "play the role in national presidential politics that its size, heterogeneity and representativeness demand." But California Democrats are among the most liberal in the nation, and caucuses limited to party activists would almost certainly bias the results strongly to the left. Once again, by trying to make a bad situation better, the Democrats are likely to make it worse.