Washington. -- Refuting the arithmetic of fatalism is the challenge to any Democrat who would be president. It is a daunting task, but it can be done.
The arithmetic turns on two numbers, 270 and $500 billion. The former is the number of electoral votes needed to win. The latter is the size the annual deficit, honestly calculated, is approaching. The deficit seems to make winning a barren exercise.
By January 1993, two Republican presidents in a dozen years will have presided over the quadrupling of the national debt that existed when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. Republicans' reckless governance and skillful politics have created today's dilemma: For a Democrat, getting to 270 is difficult, partly because the deficit generates domestic policy paralysis. This paralysis makes foreign policy, George Bush's claim to competence, the only arena of presidential action.
Democrats' fatalism about the presidency is the result of familiar facts about electoral votes.
In the ten elections since 1952, Republicans have won seven and only narrowly lost two (1960, 1976) others. Since 1952, 27 states with 274 votes have voted Republican eight or more times. In the six elections since 1968, Republicans have won five. Thirty-four states with 336 votes have voted Republican five of the six times. Twenty-one states with 191 votes have voted Republican all six times.
Since 1952, Republicans have won 69 percent of the electoral votes; since 1968, 79 percent; in the 1980s, 89 percent. In their last four victories, Republicans have won 91 percent, better than FDR's four-election average of 88.3. As population moves south and west, the Republican advantage grows. If the 1992 allocation of electoral votes had been in place in 1988, Mr. Bush's margin would have widened by ten votes.
In 10 of the 11 former Confederate states, Michael Dukakis failed to reach 44 percent of the popular vote. Those states, which had 138 electoral votes in 1988, now have 147. In those states, the Democrats' record in their last five defeats is: 2 wins, 53 losses. In the 24 contiguous states west of the Mississippi, the Democrats' record in the last five elections is: 12 wins, 108 losses.
One question about 1992 is: Which Democrat can reclaim support recently lost from Southern whites and Northern ethnics?
The South, the poorest region, is susceptible to economic liberalism, right? Evidently not. Mr. Dukakis (like Messrs. McGovern and Mondale) was shut out there, and even ran behind his national average.
One of every 16 urban Americans has been robbed or mugged, so almost every urbanite at least knows people who are victims of crime, and all urbanites are afraid. A candidate who is a social liberal -- praising court decisions limiting police powers and expanding defendants' rights, and opposing capital punishment -- is apt to be mugged by these voters.
From 1952 through 1984 an average of 20 percent of voters calling themselves Democrats voted for Republican presidential candidates. In 1972, Richard Nixon got 33 percent of those. Mr. Bush got only 10 percent, but carried 40 states. To win, a Democrat must attract lots of Republicans. Tom Harkin? Mario Cuomo? Be serious.
In 1988, a wise Democrat said the nominee should be ''a combination of Horace Greeley and Ulysses Grant, someone who can both go west and capture the South.'' Democrats unwisely nominated a Northeastern liberal.
Fortunately for Democrats, the task of breaking the Republicans' ''electoral college lock'' points toward a strategy for governance. If Democrats want to go on another ideological bender, Senator Harkin or Governor Cuomo will do. But if Democrats want four years of power rather than four months of feckless fun, then:
The candidate should be someone from a long way west of Washington. Someone who understands that for millions of Americans the two great facts about government today are its failures at two primary functions -- the provision of domestic tranquility and economic opportunity.
He should be someone who knows that crime is not a code word for racism, it is a word for barbarism and misery. He should be someone with a strategy for running to fiscal daylight by generating growth for the economy generally rather than entitlements for factions. Someone who knows it is a scandal when not one of 4,000-plus domestic programs is killed by a bipartisan budget deal (that of last October). Someone who will run right at the incumbent on the ground that it is disgusting for Americans to be dying from stray bullets, and for schools and bridges and trauma care and much else to be failing while the president is preoccupied with fine-tuning the demography of Judea and Samaria.
Could such a candidate win? Why not?
The Berlin Wall is a million souvenirs, the Communist Party is proscribed in Russia, the Minnesota Twins have gone from last to first in a single season and the Atlanta Braves may yet do so. But Mr. Bush losing is unimaginable? Can't Democrats comprehend how quickly a party can go (see the GOP, 1964-68) from being immolated to being inaugurated?
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.