WASHINGTON — Just as the Democrats appear to be honing their 1992 campaign message and finally shaking out a field of presidential candidates, the turmoil in the Soviet Union is making what already loomed as an exceedingly uphill challenge against President Bush as a president obsessed with foreign policy, to the neglect of a disintegrating economy and society at home. In one fashion or another, the presidential hopefuls have decided to pitch their chances on calling on Bush to come home.
Considering the immense popularity he has generated based on his record in foreign affairs, from the gulf war he led to the end of the Cold War of which he was an inactive beneficiary, it's obvious why the Democrats want to make domestic policy the 1992 political battleground. An integral part of their developing strategy is to demand that the huge defense spending justified during the Cold War now be turned to pressing domestic needs, from health and child care to rebuilding the country's deteriorating physical infrastructure.
But the startling events in the Soviet Union are undercutting that strategy. First, they are keeping the nation's attention glued to the very foreign policy arena in which Bush has built his political popularity. As long as he appears to be a major player in that
arena -- even when he has been dragging his feet on such matters as recognition of the Baltic States and aid to the disintegrating Soviet Union -- he is likely to reap political benefits at home.
Second, concern over the impending economic collapse of the Soviet Union, and the opportunity to make major contributions toward the development of democratic and economic reforms in the country that not long ago was the United States' most feared adversary, is shifting much of the Democrats' own focus from the domestic scene to foreign policy. Their earlier demand that a "peace dividend" resulting from the end of the Cold War be devoted to extended health insurance, day-care centers and the repair of unsafe bridges at home is being eroded by their insistence that some of it go to bail out communism's greatest failure.
Such old Cold Warriors as House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin have called for $1 billion to be diverted from defense spending to aid the splintered Soviet Union. The lone declared Democratic presidential candidate, former Sen. Paul Tsongas, wants to make it $2 billion, and other leading Democrats, including Sen. Bill Bradley and House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, have joined the chorus.
Although Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney is sticking to warning that this chaotic period of turmoil in the Soviet Union is not the time for deeper cuts in U.S. military spending, it appears inevitable that Bush will eventually opt for some aid as other Western nations seize the opportunity to shape events that now seems to elude him.
While it is true that $2 billion is a modest amount in a defense budget approaching $300 billion, and that Democrats are calling rTC for a considerably larger diversion for domestic needs, it will be tactically more difficult for the Democrats to call for Bush to "come home" when they themselves are proposing a greater American role in the dramatic events abroad. Furthermore, polls since the cataclysm in Moscow indicate Americans aren't enthusiastic about any significant bailout bankrolled by their taxes.
In any event, the Democrats as a party seem finally to be breaking out of their collective inertia. After leaving Tsongas as the lonely long-distance runner on the 1992 presidential track all this year, some sprinters are approaching the starting line -- senators Tom Harkin and Bob Kerrey, governors Bill Clinton and Doug Wilder and former Gov. Jerry Brown. All will be calling on Bush to "come home," while chiding him for not responding fast enough and strongly enough to the opportunities for democratic reform in the old Eastern European bloc and "the former Soviet Union."
The Republicans predictably will respond that "there they go again," tax-and-spend Democrats who think they can solve any problem by throwing money at it, not only at home but now also abroad. That is not a hopeful prospect for any of the Democrats who finally are contemplating seriously a challenge to the high-flying White House incumbent.