WASHINGTON -- LEADING Democrats are playing a cynical game on the question of the 1992 presidential election. On the one hand, the party's most prominent spokesmen are telling both Democratic activists and the voters at large that President Bush has been a dAmerican children are at risk, the health care system is in collapse, the infrastructure is deteriorating, the streets are overrun with drugs and the homeless, and the gulf between the rich and poor is widening while Bush plays racial politics and golf.
But when it comes to replacing him, these same Democratic leaders are saying, in effect, let someone else do it or, in some cases, we would rather wait for a more auspicious time when we have a better chance.
What a message: The nation is in jeopardy but we don't want to risk our own political skins by running against a president who has bamboozled the voters into thinking he is terrific.
There is a long and impressive list of Democrats who have made it clear they would like to be president and who have been increasingly critical of Bush's performance in office. It includes 1988 vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, Sens. Bill Bradley, Albert Gore Jr., Jay Rockefeller and Sam Nunn and Gov. Mario Cuomo. All but Cuomo and Gore have declared themselves out of the 1992 campaign. That assignment, the implication seems to be, is better suited to some longshot with nothing to lose like Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa or Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, neither of whom has made a dent on the consciousness of the American electorate.
There are no inferences that can be drawn from this situation that are flattering to the Democrats. Does their refusal to confront Bush mean that they have been exaggerating his failures on domestic policy with cheap political rhetoric? Or does it mean that the failures are real but the Democratic Party does not represent an alternative?
Whatever the answer, the image the Democrats are projecting is not one likely to evoke zeal from the rank and file of their own party or to inspire confidence in the vast majority of voters who don't follow the inside baseball. What are Americans to conclude when they see the only declared candidate is a former one-term senator from Massachusetts? What must they think about a situation in which Jerry Brown, an underdog in a California
Senate race, suddenly starts talking about running instead for the presidential nomination?
None of this suggests that the active candidates for the nomination are lacking the qualifications to be splendid candidates or successful presidents. Paul Tsongas may be short on paper credentials, but no one who knows him takes him
lightly as a politician of intellect and vision. Harkin's appeal to traditional liberals cannot be dismissed in primaries and caucuses. Clinton is highly regarded within the political community for both his performance as governor and his skills as a campaigner.
But these are candidates who in another presidential cycle would have made up the "second tier" -- meaning those longshots who needed to make some dramatic breakthrough to become serious factors in the equation. The difference this time is that there isn't any first tier.
Those who would have qualified automatically -- the Bentsens and Mitchells and Gephardts and Bradleys -- are sitting it out.
This vacuum may not last forever, of course. Cuomo is a certified heavyweight with the personal force and rhetorical skills to project a Democratic message that would take the fight to Bush. His image as another liberal from the northeast would be certain to evoke stiff resistance in the primaries and make him a difficult sell in the general election. But Cuomo is, by any measure, a first-tier candidate the Republicans could not ignore.
Gore also has not closed the door; those close to him say he remains genuinely undecided. The experience of having run in 1988, even if somewhat clumsily, would give him a special stature in the current Democratic field.
But for now the Democrats are sending self-destructive signals to the electorate. The message is that the party may stand for something, but nothing worth taking any risks.