Although spotlight is on Bush's health, it may do little electoral damage

January 09, 1992|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's sudden and vividly televised bout with the flu has once again turned a bright light on the question of the 67-year-old president's health and whether it may be an issue in the election campaign.

Publicly, Democrats were following the predictably cautious course of wishing the president a speedy recovery while privately enjoying the prospect of fresh discussion of the qualifications of Vice President Dan Quayle.

But the Democrats conceded that even if there were a political opening, they are powerless to exploit it. Unless the president has a continuing health problem, as opposed to an isolated episode of illness, the voters will be making their choice next November, as they did in 1988, on the relative strengths of the presidential candidates rather than on who might succeed them.

"We can't use it," a leading Democratic consultant said of the president's health. "And we absolutely should not because it would backfire. But the issue [of Mr. Quayle as a potential successor] is already out there, and this is a reminder."

Political professionals in both parties made two central points about the health issue.

The first is that the episode is likely to be quickly forgotten if, as all the early evidence suggests, the president's illness is minor and transitory. The second is that voters are not inclined to base their decisions on the next president on any health questions that are not serious and continuing.

The last time a sitting president had a serious health problem was in 1955 when Dwight D. Eisenhower suffered a severe heart attack.

Under prodding from moderate Republican allies not enamored of then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon, Mr. Eisenhower considered making a change on his ticket in 1956. But Nixon allies in the party built a show of grass-roots support for him -- including 22,000 write-in votes on the vice presidential line in the 1956 New Hampshire primary -- and he was retained.

More to the point, the voters apparently were not alarmed about Mr. Eisenhower's heart attack and demonstrated as much by re-electing him in a landslide over Democrat Adlai E. Stevenson.

The only other roughly equivalent episode in recent history -- in terms of seriousness -- came when President Ronald Reagan was wounded by an assassin's bullet early in his first term. But the president made a full recovery long before he faced the voters again in 1984.

The situation with Mr. Quayle is somewhat different from others because the questions that have been raised about this vice president always have centered on his qualifications and ability rather than, as in the case of Mr. Nixon, on his political style.

Moreover, there is every reason to believe that the health issue may be even less relevant than it has been in the past -- with the end of the Cold War and the consequent lessening of concern about whether the president is able to perform his duties or needs to be temporarily replaced. The days when the country was concerned with who controlled the nuclear "button" seem to have passed.

"The way it looks," a Democratic strategist said, "is that this thing will be history in a couple of days. It isn't going to make any difference."

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