Democrats still playing catch-up to Bush's winning image On Politics Today

Jack W.Germond and Jules Witcover

August 02, 1991|By Jack W.Germond and Jules Witcover

Washington -- DEMOCRATS bemoaning the absence of the 1992 presidential campaign haven't been watching the television news shows or reading the newspapers. The Democrats may not have been able to get out of the starting gate, but Republican candidate George Bush is already around the first turn with his upbeat Moscow summit with his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev.

That picture of President Bush guffawing at a Gorbachev remark passed on to him through an interpreter, running on many front pages, spoke volumes about the end of the Cold War that has come on Bush's watch. You can be sure it will be seen again in the Bush re-election commercials next year.

The Moscow summit, at which the long-awaited START nuclear arms control treaty was signed, doubtless will be one part of the television double feature that the Bush campaign image-makers will be offering up to the voters repeatedly in 1992. The other part, obviously, will display Bush the conquering warrior in the Persian Gulf.

A preview of that hit has already been aired, in a videotape prepared shortly after the war by Phil Dusenberry, the Madison Avenue ad man who helped produce the highly effective "It's Morning in America" feel-good commercials for Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign.

The Dusenberry videotape, shown last April at a defense contractors' dinner tribute to their favorite client, the Pentagon, displayed vivid action shots of American military power in the gulf war, with plenty of American flags and voice-overs by Bush.

It takes no crystal ball to foresee that a version of the same will make its way into the 1992 Bush re-election commercials, as will scenes ofthe Moscow summit, on behalf of a president whose first term has been focused overwhelmingly on foreign shores. This concentration comes at the expense of ignored domestic problems that have been made more difficult because the Democratic Congress, which can be largely sidestepped in the conduct of foreign policy, must be dealt with.

What amounts to Bush's obsession with foreign affairs leaves the Democrats supremely frustrated in their attempts to bring voters' attention back home. One Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, has resorted to displaying a large suitcase with foreign-capital labels on it as a means of belittling the much-traveled president. Harkin tells crowds it's time for Bush to "unpack" and deal with America's own woes.

But without a cohesive message of their own on how to cope with such major domestic problems as unemployment and inadequate health and child care, and without a heavy hitter running for the presidency to give voice to such a message, there is no compelling political reason for Bush to "come home."

In the next months, as the Democrats struggle to get their own campaign started, the Republican incumbent is scheduled to go to Italy, Japan, Korea and Australia. While none of these stops offers the public relations bonanza that the Moscow summit has produced, they will sustain the image of George Bush striding the world scene as the embodiment of the remaining superpower in the wake of the Cold War's end.

A great irony in all this is the fact that it was Gorbachev, not Bush, who was instrumental in hastening the end of the Cold War as a result of his reforms within his own country and in his withdrawal from Eastern Europe. And while it can be argued that the West's military steadfastness finally wore down the Soviet economy and forced the changes, it should be recalled that Bush was among the last major figures to recognize and accept the significance of what was happening.

Such caveats, however, are of little comfort to the Democrats as they stand by watching Bush play the foreign policy card so effectively in terms of domestic politics. The optimists in the Democratic Party hope they can convert Bush's home front neglect into the central issue with which to recapture middle-class voters who are the key to Democratic chances to upset him next year.

But they are likely to need more than a suitcase pasted with foreign labels to counter those pictures of Bush and Gorbachev chumming it up and those scenes of triumph in the Persian Gulf that will be centerpieces of a Bush re-election campaign that has already started, whether the Democrats recognize it or not.

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