WASHINGTON — Washington. -- There are dozens of good questions to be asked about George Bush's handling of relations with the government of Mikhail Gorbachev. As far as domestic politics is concerned, none of them amounts to a bowl of borscht.
Democrats glad to see the long, long celebration of the short Persian Gulf war finally wind down were just getting their act together for 1992 when the abortive coup in Moscow stole the headlines. They might never find a candidate, but domestic issues were falling their way.
Abortion, education, unemployment compensation, all seemed more pressing than the fading image of a president starring in "High Noon" against Saddam Hussein. Since those who backed Mr. Bush's use of force turned out to be (politically) right, no Democrat was bothering to challenge him on foreign affairs. Their most telling criticism in that field was that the president spent too much time abroad and too little at home.
Now that the Moscow coup also has turned out right, questions about the Bush administration's Soviet policy beforehand may be classed politically with forgotten objections to the president's military decision in the gulf. But the happy result in Moscow means Mr. Bush still is going to have to deal with Mr. Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin or someone of their ilk, so questions are as valid as ever.
Should the president have staked so much on his personal relationship with Mr. Gorbachev? If the coup had succeeded, that would have made relations with a new regime more than touchy. And now that the elected government is securely in power again, Mr. Bush and the rest of the West must restrain their impulse to hug him just because he is so much more attractive than the bullies of the KGB and the Red Army.
There is still room for debate about how much aid to extend to the Gorbachev government, and how much democratization to demand in return. Is it realistic to expect conversion of a decrepit 70-year-old controlled economy to free-market practice almost overnight? Gary Hart, for example, urges that we give first priority to putting bread on the Soviet table, rather than insisting on extensive change first.
Other Democrats ask whether the United States helped create the climate for the coup attempt by holding back serious help, while frustrated Soviet citizens stood in line for common consumer goods. They make the valid point that the Reagan-Bush administration refused most-favored-nation trade status to the Soviet Union for five years while giving it to a much more repressive regime in China.
For two days while the Gang of Eight's coup seemed to be a fait accompli, the opposition was puzzling over whether to criticize Mr. Bush's performance during the emergency. Most Democrats joined him in speaking up strongly against the coup. But if it had succeeded, they were ready to make Soviet relations instead of the Persian Gulf their measure of how well he handles foreign affairs.
They have seen his sensitivity to questions contrasting his reaction to the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing and to the confrontation in Moscow. Even one Republican operative admitted that while it is important to manage crises, it is more important to avoid them.
Yet crises have been the bedrock of Mr. Bush's continuing popularity. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll last month found 72 percent of Americans feeling a "great deal" of confidence in his handling of national security and foreign policy, while only 23 percent felt the same way about "a Democratic president." On the day of the coup, a Gallup/CNN survey showed 66 percent thought the president's response was "about right" -- and his performance got better as it went along.
The president made sure to quote Boris Yeltsin the other day about how useful the U.S. stand had been in reversing the coup. One head-shaking Democrat after another has admitted that Mr. Bush again looks like "president of the world." Because he is so adamantly for elected heads of government (except perhaps in China), he cannot discreetly claim the title. But instant communication today makes all the world a stage, and most days, wherever the president is becomes stage center.
Any Democrat quibbling this week around Iowa or New Hampshire -- or indeed the Capitol -- might as well be in outermost Siberia, along with the Gang of Eight.