IT'S NOW exactly one year from the 1992 presidential conventions, and there is still no announced Democratic candidate for the presidency with a realistic hope of being nominated. Several candidates seem about to toss their hats into the ring, but it hasn't happened yet.
The Democrats are understandably daunted by George Bush's high approval rating. Today,he is clearly a favorite to be re-elected.
But there are several good reasons why the Democrats have an obligation to find a good candidate and run the best race possible.
First of all, they owe it to the American people -- even though the American people are not exactly lined up demanding it. But the Democrats are the majority in the Congress, in the governor's mansions and in the state legislatures. A party with that much influence must have an agenda to support.
Second, there's always the possibility the Democrats could win in 1992. Bush's support has always been a mile wide and an inch deep.
His 72 percent approval rating has already fallen off from the postwar high of 91 percent. In another six months, it could be even lower. If his support falls to, say, 58 percent, the media will begin talking about his plummeting popularity.
At the same time, a majority of Americans now believe the country is moving in the wrong direction.
The public wants a much more active domestic agenda than Bush seems prepared to offer. And in senators Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Tom Harkin of Iowa, and governors Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Mario Cuomo of New York, the Democrats actually have some potentially strong candidates.
The flip side of that argument is that if the Democrats do not field a strong presidential candidate, even in a losing cause, they can endanger their strength below the presidential level. The number of people who identify with the two major parties is now virtually identical. That's reflected in the apparent preference for a Republican president and a Democratic Congress. But if the Democrats don't stand for something, they could slip badly in the Congress and at the local level.
Another argument for running a strong campaign is that the media and the public are fickle. If George Bush is re-elected, he practically becomes a lame duck before he's even sworn in for a second term. There will be more talk about Dan Quayle's prospects in 1996 than there will be about a second-term agenda.
People now expect that Bush will be re-elected easily. What is he isn't? What if he gets the same 54 percent of the vote he got in 1988? What if he gets 52 percent? The perception will be that he's weaker than he was in his first term.
The stronger he's perceived to be, the better chance he has of pushing his own agenda in a second term; the weaker he's perceived to be, the less chance he has. If the Democrats really don't like Bush's agenda, their minimal goal should be to ensure that a second Bush administration doesn't begin with a "mandate."
Unless, of course, it's a Democratic mandate. Winning presidential candidates often co-opt their opponents' issues. In 1984, Walter Mondale emphasized support for arms control and Social Security. Ronald Reagan moved toward an arms agreement and backed off plans to tinker with the Social Security system.
In 1988, Michael Dukakis emphasized education and the environment. George Bush pledged to become both "the education president" and "the environmental president."
The Democrats' main issues today are help for children and health care. If they make a strong presentation on those issues, they can shape Bush's handling of them.
The Democratic presidential candidates' timing may not be a problem in the long run. Americans may be thankful for s shorter, less exhausting campaign, and issues and personalities can sometimes take shape quickly. But it would be bad for both the party and the nation if the Democrats go easy on 1992 while waiting for 1996.