Dems' prospects for '92 could change in a heartbeat On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

May 07, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

CLEVELAND — Cleveland

PRESIDENT BUSH'S health problem is a forceful reminder that politics is not a scientific exercise. There are too many variables.

At this point, no one can know how the president's medical problem will affect, if at all, his plans for a second term. But the political lesson is already clear: The equation can change overnight.

It is a lesson the Democrats should take seriously before they throw in the towel on the 1992 presidential campaign, as so many of them seem willing to do as they read the Bush approval ratings in the opinion polls.

Democrats like those who gathered here for the Democratic Leadership Council's convention are enjoying the revived speculation about the future of Vice President Dan Quayle. Prominent DLC leaders such as Govs. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia argued that the episode would focus new attention on the question of whether Bush had chosen the man best qualified to succeed him if that became necessary.

And political professionals speculated that the situation could cause continuing tensions among Republicans, many of whom privately would prefer a stronger vice presidential candidate in 1992. Democrats have visions of the president being obliged to throw Quayle over the side despite his renewed assurances of satisfaction with him.

The Democrats may be kidding themselves. The Quayle issue boiled for three weeks after he was chosen at New Orleans in 1988. By the time the campaign ended, however, there was no evidence in the polling data or results that the choice had done Bush any political damage.

Thus, one possibility is that Bush will continue in robust good health and the Quayle question will fade from the dialogue long before the 1992 campaign begins in earnest. On the other hand, if Bush's health problems persist, there could be legitimate questions not just about Quayle but about whether the president will seek a second term. So the first imperative for the Democrats probably should be putting themselves into a position where they can deal with such circumstances.

That clearly is not the case today. The only declared candidate for the Democratic nomination is Paul Tsongas, a one-term senator from Massachusetts who has had health problems of his own. The only others actively testing the waters are Wilder, George S. McGovern, who was buried under a landslide for Richard M. Nixon 20 years ago, and Jesse Jackson, whose de facto campaign is always with us.

Meanwhile, such potentially heavy candidates as House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, Sens. Sam Nunn of Georgia, Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia are standing aloof, in some cases apparently waiting for just the right moment in 1992.

The result is that there are only two candidates considered to have any real winning potential who seem to be sending positive signals, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee and Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York. And each of them has heavy political baggage within the party -- suspicion of Gore among liberal activists and a consensus among more conservative Democrats that Cuomo is just the kind of northeastern liberal who cannot win.

And, as the bickering here over meaningless resolutions by the DLC illustrates, the Democratic Party is something less than a cohesive force capable of confronting the Republicans in the White House with either consistent criticism or a coherent alternative. It is not even a party prepared to take advantage of changed circumstances when they arise.

Bush's medical condition is not the only variable that could make the campaign appear a great deal different at any time. At the moment, there is little weight being given to allegations that the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign tried to make a secret deal with Iran to hold U.S. hostages until after the election. But there is at least enough smoke so that some further investigations are likely. The economy continues to be a more stubborn problem than the administration expected. Some of the luster is being rubbed off the success of Desert Storm by continuing problems in the Middle East.

Assuming his medical problems are as fleeting and minimal as the first reports have indicated, President Bush will be a formidable incumbent in the 1992 campaign. The Democrats would be foolish to proceed on any other assumption. But they would be equally foolish if they failed to recognize that the whole political word can be transformed overnight.

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