Clarence Thomas may do in the Bush presidency. It is at least possible that Judge Thomas will be confirmed to the Supreme Court, help provoke the electorate to chuck out the president next year, and then serve four more decades, playing a decisive role in constitutional questions yet to be imagined.
His threat to President Bush's re-election does not turn on Judge Thomas' votes on issues of individual versus group rights. Rather it is the possibility of his joining a majority to erase Roe v. Wade of 1973.
Given his identification with an array of conservative movement causes, the likelihood of his doing so is great. As early as 1988, this was the issue that could turn Republican women into Democratic voters (in larger numbers than it turns Democratic women into Republican voters). It was not decisive in 1988, but it was there.
There is now little doubt that the Supreme Court will face the issue again soon, and that the more conservative politically it gets, the more likely it will become emboldened to repeal precedent. Nor is there doubt that both political parties find public opinion on the side of abortion rights. So the question is whether a politicized Supreme Court would postpone the confrontation until after the 1992 election, not whether it will reconsider the issue.
But with the weakening of the right to abortion as drawn in Roe v. Wade, the writing of stiff anti-abortion laws in Louisiana, Utah and Guam is withdrawing a right that younger women took for granted, and is politicizing many against the party that they see doing this to them.
This issue alone would not defeat an incumbent president whose popularity according to opinion polls is extremely high. That would take other conditions, some of which do exist and may or may not be dissipated by November 1992:
* The recession. If it is really ending, as government economists keep insisting, President Bush is home free and the Supreme Court cannot trip him. Prosperity is a winning political argument. But the recession is still growing psychologically, breeding anxieties and the classic desire to blame whoever was in power when it became visible.
* The decline in American amenities, in which rusting bridges, uncollected garbage, proliferating homelessness, the despair of the jobless and the decline of public health undermine the self-satisfaction of a nation that had reckoned itself the best.
The current round of state and local budget crises -- most visibly in New York City -- exacerbates this. To some extent, this decline is the same as the recession. Actually, it is the marriage of Reagan social policies to the recession.
* The war. This is the issue that made President Bush unassailable for a while. No less an authority than John Sununu was going to wage the 1992 congressional campaign on Democrats' vote against authorizing it. (That was before the country learned from Bob Woodward that Chairman Powell and the entire Joint Chiefs agreed with the Democrats.)
From an electoral standpoint, the war came too soon. Disillusion may set in well before November 1992. The patriotic confusion of the commander-in-chief with the flag could only last a few months.
Americans are unhappy with the aftermaths in Iraq and Kuwait. We killed an estimated 200,000 Iraqis, with whom we had no quarrel, and left Saddam Hussein, with whom we did, in power. If Kurds are being slaughtered next year while the U.S. stands by, will Mr. Sununu really want a referendum on the wisdom of the war?
The next nefarious bully who comes along, the U.S. had better tackle by other means. There is a quota to the amount of war Americans will tolerate their president getting them into, which President Reagan respected, and Mr. Bush used up more than a year and a half before the election.
* * *
Actually, President Bush might survive in 1992 no matter what, for one reason over which he has no control.
It is not enough to create the conditions of his downfall. The Democrats would still have to put up an alternative the country considered presidential, which they habitually refuse to do.
The pendulum was swinging in a liberal and Democratic direction in 1988. In Michael Dukakis they put forward a nominee of singular ineptitude. The qualities needed to win a Democratic nomination are not those that win a general election.
Only with Jimmy Carter in 1976 did the Democrats show that a party can win an election with a barely suitable nominee if the incumbent party has sufficiently outworn its welcome. But the Democrats cannot count on such blessings in 16-year intervals.
So far, no Democratic candidate has emerged who is both presidential and willing. President Bush may be trying to throw away his presidency, but he cannot succeed if the Democrats are even more determined to perpetuate him in it.
Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.