Little Rock, Ark. -- PRESIDENT BUSH'S extraordinary personal popularity is confronting Democrats with some difficult strategic and tactical decisions. The question for the Democratic candidates is how to cut him down to political size without undermining their own positions.
In one sense, the first priority for the Democrats is to cut into Bush's approval ratings enough so that defeating him in the 1992 election appears at least possible. Right now the president's approval ratings are running 60 to 70 percent, and he wins hypothetical matchups against the Democrats by 20 points or more. The result is a pervasive pessimism among Democrats.
But there are reasons for the Democrats to believe they can change the context. For one thing, despite his high approval ratings, Bush gets bad marks from the voters on the domestic issues they rate as most pressing, including the economy, the health care system, education and the environment.
The same was generally true of Ronald Reagan approaching his campaign for a second term. His approval rating dropped to just over 50 percent early in 1984, largely because voters disagreed with his positions on so many specific issues. Reagan was able to resolve those doubts enough to win a landslide re-election over Walter F. Mondale, but at this stage in the cycle he did not appear as invulnerable as Bush does today.
Political professionals see one critical difference in the situations of the two Republicans. Because Reagan was so ideologically driven, he was a polarizing force in American politics. By contrast, the avuncular "good guy" Bush does not evoke similarly strong feelings. Thus, the problem for the Democrat
candidates is making Bush appear more vulnerable without inspiring a backlash against their approach.
The Democrats are divided on how to handle the problem. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, running as an un
abashed, unapologetic champion of traditional liberalism, is attacking the president in harsh terms and deriding him as "George Herbert Walker Bush" at every mention. The risk is that Harkin will be seen as picking on a nice man and behaving in an unpresidential way.
By contrast, the other two leading Democrats, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, are using a much softer strategy. In their announcement speeches, each has assailed in scathing terms the results of 12 years of Republican ++ rule in the White House, but neither has attacked Bush in anything that could be called an ad hominem way.
In essence, they are saying Bush deserves credit for his conduct of the Persian Gulf war and his initiative to reduce nuclear arms. But they are also identifying him with 12 years of policies that have widened the gap between rich and poor and neglected problems at home that are undermining the foundations of American society. The message, in essence, is: He may be a nice guy but it is time for him to be replaced because he has neither the interest nor the vision to deal with the challenges that require the attention of the White House.
There are elements of the political context encouraging to Democrats. Opinion polls show both more voter concern about domestic questions and a reaction against devoting either much time or money abroad. It may not be a true revival of isolationism, but there are clear America-first currents in the electorate as well.
None of this suggests that President Bush is not in a remarkably strong political position with the election little more than a year away. Nor is it clear that the Democrats can muddle through their nominating process to produce a candidate forceful enough to persuade Americans he is a plausible alternative in the White House.
Finally, it is impossible to foresee now the dynamics of the general election campaign. We don't know, for example, whether the economy will have recovered or slipped back into a deeper recession. No one can predict today how Bush may react during the heat of a campaign; he has not always been the self-assured, congenial personality he has been since he entered the White House.
But for the Democratic candidates, the immediate imperative is scaling him down to human dimensions so their supporters will believe he can be defeated. And at this stage it is clear they are by no means certain how to go about doing that.