WASHINGTON — WITH PRESIDENT Bush's popularity soaring, and the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination currently looking about as desirable as a free weekend in the South Bronx, you're hearing the foolish talk again about the Democrats using that nomination as something less than a serious bid for the White House.
One notion is that the party ought to let Jesse Jackson have it, let him get clobbered, and get him and his political monkey wrench out of the Democratic presidential picture once and for all. Another is to give the nomination to 70-year-old Sen. Lloyd Bentsen on the notion that he will run a credible, if losing, race against Bush and thus prevent a lot of other good Democrats from going down to defeat. But Bentsen, who has been weighing a candidacy, says he wants no part of being a mere political life preserver.
Still another idea is to let some young up-and-comer like Sen. Bob Kerrey get his feet wet in national politics by making him the nominee, so that he can build name recognition around the country, while losing, and position himself for a serious bid in 1996.
The trouble with all these frivolous schemes is, for openers, that running for president these days is such an ordeal, requiring so much effort and money, that it's not likely anyone of any stature whatever is going to want to take it on for the sheer fun of it. It's also often said that longshot presidential candidates are really running for the vice presidency, but while losers (like George Bush in 1980) may take it as a consolation prize, they hardly go into the race planning to wind up as the place horse.
As for the presidential nomination, even in 1992, it will not be anyone's for the taking for one simple reason -- anything can happen, and often does. Even high-riding presidents may be in very thick soup by the time voting time rolls around, either as a result of events including the state of the economy, or health, or personal foibles. Just ask early longshot candidates like Ed Muskie (in 1971) and Gary Hart (in 1987).
Also, it should be remembered that since 1945, five our of the last nine presidents have previously been vice presidents and three of them -- Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford -- succeeded to the White House when death, real or political, befell the incumbents. Truman and Johnson won election in their own right but Ford failed, and it takes no crystal ball to see how the 1992 political picture would be turned on its head if Vice President Dan Quayle were to take over the presidency before the next national election.
The latest CBS/New York Times poll gives Quayle a favorability rating of a paltry 19 percent to 27 percent unfavorable, compared to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell (56-2), Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney (57-3) and Secretary of State James Baker (66-5). All have been mentioned as possible replacements for Quayle on the ticket, although White House Chief of Staff John Sununu insists Quayle has a lock on being Bush's running mate again.
These figures provide ample indication of how the 1992 Democratic outlook would likely change if the country woke up some morning and found Dan Quayle as president. Even short of this occurrence, Democrats with the White House gleam in their eyes will find adequate reasons to think they might just win the Democratic nomination and go on to the presidency, if lightning strikes -- themselves, Bush or the country's fortunes.
George McGovern has offered himself as a sort of mechanical rabbit, scurrying around the track as a pacesetter in the hope that some others will start chasing him. Other Democrats, including retired Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, said to be cured of cancer, are now making noises about running.
Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, in going to bat for fellow Democrats chastised by Republican critics for having voted against the use of force in the Persian Gulf, also says he is keeping the door open. The vacuum that has existed in the Democratic picture is certain to shrink along with Bush's popularity when the political battleground returns to the domestic agenda. And with the taxpayers footing much of the bill for presidential candidates under the current campaign finance laws, you can bet the starting gate won't be empty much longer.