Washington -- SMUG Republicans are braying predictably about the "stature gap" revealed in the debate among the Democratic presidential candidates the other night. The theory is that the voters will see none of these pygmy politicians as a match for Leader of the Free World George Bush. But it sounds a little like whistling past the graveyard.
No one would argue, of course, that an incumbent presudent doesn't enjoy a tremendous advantage over six guys who are as little known to the electorate as these Democrats. The only one with anything approaching national name recognition is Jerry Brown, and much of what voters know about him they don't like. The Democrats who might have been more imposing from the outset are those who chose not to run this year.
But the idea that Bush enjoys some special standing that makes him immune to both the concerns and capriciousness of the electorate is nonsense. The campaign is just beginning, and by the time the nominating process is over some Democrat is going to have gained enough exposure -- simply by winning primaries and appearing on television -- to be a serious contender.
The real mistake in the Republican thinking goes beyond anything that obvious, however. It is the notion that the president can rely on a presumption of foreign policy expertise to win re-election at a time when there is no crisis in international affairs.
For one thing, the electorate has a short attention span. Nine months ago Bush enjoyed approval ratings of 90 percent in the aftermath of the war in the Persian Gulf; Republicans were ecstatic and Democrats intimidated. Today the war against Saddam Hussein seems remote and irrelevant, and Bush's approval rating has dropped to 50 percent or less. The voters are asking what is always the first question of American politics: What have you done for me lately?
Beyond that, the argument that Bush has such a genius for foreign policy is now subject to rude questions from the Democrats. Did it take decades of experience to decide to kowtow to the Chinese after Tiananmen Square? Did it take foreign policy expertise to stand by passively while Eastern Europe transformed itself in 1989? If the Persian Gulf war was such a complete success, why is Saddam Hussein still flourishing?
By contrast, Democrats can point to successes by other presidents with little foreign policy background. John F. Kennedy in dealing with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Jimmy Carter in brokering the precedent-shattering peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1978. And how can Republicans reconcile Ronald Reagan's lack of experience -- or even intellectual curiousity -- in foreign affairs with their claims he was responsible for ending the Cold War?
None of this suggests the Democrats don't have their work cut out for them in presenting a candidate who will be seen as a safe steward of international relations. The voters seem to recognize there is some risk in replacing an incumbent with a lesser-known quantity, so whoever runs against Bush in the general election must be reassuring and convincing in that role even when the world seems relatively safe.
Meanwhile, however, there is a corresponding pressure on Bush to provide the electorate some comfort level on a much more immediate concern -- the parlous condition of the economy. So far his response has been vacillating and hesitant. One day we are told he will deal with the whole problem in his State of the Union speech; the next the story is that White House is looking at a $300-a-taxpayer rebate. One day we hear there is no recession; the next the White House concedes, well, maybe there is one after all but, heck, let's get down to work on it.
Any incumbent president has an enormous political advantage. He can shape the national agenda, at least to a degree, and he can command the full attention of the news media any day he chooses to do so. But the flip side is that the president is under such constant scrutiny that any indication he is not sure-footed TTC and confident in dealing with a problem is magnified.
So the Republicans may be right in their smug assertions that none of these Democrats has the stature of the president of the United States. But they are fooling themselves if they believe George Bush can be re-elected on his resume on foreign policy rather than his record of four years in office.