LAST AUGUST I predicted that George Bush would not run for re-election. I was wrong. I do not expect Governor Clinton to prove me wrong again, however, as I now predict that for the good of his party he will not accept the Democratic nomination.
The reasons for this are already overwhelming, and the governor is a man of reason, as George Bush, I regret to say, is not. Above, I confessed error in predicting that Mr. Bush would not run, but the truly serious error was made by the president.
As I stated in my column of Aug. 13, 1991, after Mr. Bush's Desert Storm triumph nothing but disaster could come of trying to stretch his luck toward a second term. Mr. Bush, being "eminently sensible," must surely seize the opportunity, I said, to leave the White House as a hero and let some loyal party hack take the coming fall.
My own error was to judge the president as "eminently sensible." August's "eminently sensible" Bush had turned into Dizzy George by December when he said, "I will do what I have to do to be re-elected."
Thus, with what was to become a characteristically infelicitous choice of words, he managed to make himself seem an utterly unprincipled careerist willing to do anything -- "will do what I have to do" -- to get four more years at the trough.
Though sobered by Mr. Bush's fall from the ranks of the "eminently sensible," I have no qualms about Governor Clinton's ability to hold steady in the reason department. He has the superior education it takes. Whereas George Bush was merely a Yale undergraduate, Bill Clinton is a Yale Law School product. And not just a Yale Law man, but also a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.
A man with perceptions honed by such fine intellectual training cannot fail to see that while the Democratic nomination may be within his grasp, grasping it would be a grave, possibly catastrophic mistake.
The polls, which ought to be outlawed but, alas, aren't, paint him as a sure loser. This week, depending on whose polls you look at, he wouldn't even finish second in a field containing Ross Perot.
Polls, of course, create monstrous distortions of reality. Nevertheless, politicians, always desperate for a fact in a business that deals in moods and hunches, embrace them with a ferocity deadly to the poor devil with falling numbers. Note the sudden Republican distaste for Mr. Bush when his polls went subterranean from 80 percent.
Governor Clinton's present polls create the same misery among Democrats that Mr. Bush's have created among Republicans. The worst for Mr. Clinton is that the worst is yet to come. The dreaded Republican campaign technicians, the death squads of contemporary politics, haven't even gone to work on him yet.
When those babies go into action, Democrats fall like wheat under sleet. So while the Clinton polls can reasonably be expected to rise after the usual invigorations of the Democratic Convention, they can just as reasonably be expected to collapse once the Republicans go to nationwide TV with Gennifer Flowers, non-inhalation of marijuana and kiddies asking, "What did you do in the war, Mr. Bill?"
This wouldn't matter much in a year when Democrats were up against an unbeatable vote-getter like Ronald Reagan or General Eisenhower. This year, however, began by looking like their year. If their great opportunity is lost because they had to take a candidate they didn't believe in from the start, Mr. Clinton can surely expect to be forever ridiculed and despised by all to whom he now dreams of devoting his life.
Being an eminently sensible man, he will surely do the only sensible thing: At the convention he will withdraw his candidacy and throw his dominant bloc of votes to the one candidate certain to defeat President Bush by vast majorities in every state.
As kingmaker, he will of course have his choice of roles -- he could even be ambassador to Paris -- after the inevitable Democratic victory ends the paralysis of divided government. Thereafter he would be not a pathetic figure to be despised and ridiculed, but a great historic hero of the Democratic Party.
No eminently sensible man can do otherwise. Which Democrat will he choose for president? I could tell you, but it would be unseemly to spoil Mr. Clinton's surprise.
Russell Baker, a New York Times columnist, began predicting as a reporter for The Sun.