WASHINGTON -- The Democrats have been plunged into even deeper political malaise by the crisis in the Soviet Union. They obviously have good reason to despair, but it may be too early to tell how the politics of the situation will play out eventually.
On the face of it, the crisis is political gold for President Bush. It makes the Democrats' attempts to focus on his domestic failings seem irrelevant if not downright unpatriotic. The nation always rallies behind a president in times of international peril.
Beyond that, the situation calls attention to the fact that the Democrats have no presidential candidate in the field, nor one soon expected in the field, with the foreign policy credentials that would seem to be required at the moment. Five terms as governor of Arkansas is hardly the best preparation for dealing with an international crisis.
Nor do the attempts of a few Democrats to put a better face on things carry much conviction. The charge that Bush will have to explain "who lost Gorbachev?" is laughable in the current climate. If the election were next week, Bush would win in a landslide.
But the Democrats can take some small solace from the fact that the election is still 15 months -- and many turns of the world -- away. If the situation in the Soviet Union is resolved within days or weeks, American voters would be expected to turn their attention back to their own personal concerns. And, as the most recent polls show, two-thirds of them believe the country is very seriously "off on the wrong track." Further economic problems would confirm that view.
Nor would Bush be insulated from political debate on the U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union as he has been protected from serious second-guessing on the war in the Persian Gulf. Unlike the war with Iraq, the situation in the Soviet Union has not involved peril to American troops, so it will be possible for Bush's critics to raise their voices without being accused of lacking patriotism.
In fact, the prospect is that Bush, as he acknowledged in his press conference at the White House, will catch heat from both sides. Conservatives will fault him, as they have all along, for getting too close to Mikhail Gorbachev and not recognizing the continuing communist peril that resurfaced with the committee of eight. And liberals will fault him for failing to give Gorbachev the help he needed to shore up his leadership.
But any political threat to Bush clearly requires a Democratic alternative who seems more credible -- or at least plausible -- as an alternative. Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas has a solid record on domestic policy but zero experience in this area. The same is essentially true of Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa or former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas. Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York has a similar gap in his resume. One possibility, then, is that if the foreign policy issue continues to be as dominant as it seems today, some Democrats will seek to pressure other candidates into the 1992 field; candidates such as Sam Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee; Sen. Lloyd Bentsen or Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell -- each of whom has the gravitas to be taken seriously as a steward of international affairs. The prospects of Sen. Albert Gore Jr., who does have some legitimate national security credentials, might be marginally enhanced.
As the Democrats look ahead to the 1992 election, all they can see is another situation that makes Bush seem even more unassailable. But one lesson of the crisis in the Soviet Union is that the world can turn upside down in a day.