WASHINGTON -- If all had gone according to schedule, Democrats would be roasting President Bush right about now for his decision notto implement their bill to extend unemployment benefits.
That, at least, was the plan Saturday, when Mr. Bush formally quashed the Democrats' $5.2 billion measure, refusing to declare the economic emergency required for the money to be spent.
But the next day, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev was deposed. Ever since, Washington's eyes have been focused on matters Soviet, noton a pre-election year controversy over unemployment compensation.
The events of the last few days "play to Bush's strengths and make the Democrats look completely irrelevant," said William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. That compounds the challenge facing Democrats laying the groundwork for next year's presidential campaign.
"Can you imagine somebody saying, 'I wish Wilder were president' or 'I wish Clinton were here to save the world'? It's unthinkable," Mr. Schneider said, referring to presidential hopefuls L. Douglas Wilder, governor of Virginia, and Bill Clinton, governor of Arkansas. "Can you imagine if someone were to declare the candidacy for president while all this goes on? The whole world would laugh."
Democrats therefore face a dilemma maddeningly familiar in the foreign-crisis-rich tenure of President Bush: how to play the loyal opposition at a time when the public expects more loyalty than opposition.
The problem plagued them during Iraq's failed attempt to annex Kuwait, when most domestic policy debate was postponed until the end of the ensuing Persian Gulf war. Now, the political challenge posed by the Soviet crisis is intensified by the fact that it is occurring so close to what usually would mark the start of the presidential campaign season.
"Everyone says no Democrat has the stature to take on Bush," said one congressional Democratic aide. "One way to get that stature is to launch a campaign, except that they can't as long as the situation in Moscow continues with this kind of force."
Another way to enhance that stature is to assault the president's image. Key Democrats launched an early volley in that assault last weekend. After the president refused to support the unemployment bill, Democrats lambasted him for paying so much attention to international affairs.
"Although the president prefers helping people overseas, Congress will ensure that we take care of our own," House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., said at the time.
House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., called on the president to bring "the same leadership to the domestic challenges facing the nation" that he brought to the gulf war.
But with the president called on again to exhibit his foreign policy acumen, "it's now become a tricky thing to criticize him," said Democratic pollster Tubby Harrison, "especially since they've got him on TV every 10 seconds playing president."
Now some Democrats are experimenting with ways to do just that themselves. As the first rush of reports from Moscow came in, Representative Dave McCurdy, D-Okla., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, castigated Mr. Bush for a "tepid" response to the crisis.
Other Democrats have promised hearings to investigate questions surrounding the Soviet coup -- and questions surrounding U.S. policy toward Mr. Gorbachev and the Soviet Union before and after it.