WASHINGTON -- If George Bush were running for president of Russia, the economic summit meeting at Munich might be counted as a political plus. After all, Boris Yeltsin went back to Moscow with promises of $24 billion in economic assistance.
But President Bush came away empty-handed, to the surprise of no one. Indeed, it may turn out that the Group of Seven meeting was not just irrelevant politically but perhaps a flat-out loser.
There was, of course, no way President Bush could have avoided attending the economic summit. They hold those meetings every year, and they are supposed to deal with bTC important matters.
But the president's problem was compounded by the fact that the administration raised hopes in advance that the meeting would produce a trade agreement that, in turn, would have had some meaning for American jobs. Instead, as usual, it ended with a lot of rhetoric but no trade agreement. There is never going to be any trade deal, it is clear, until it is in the interest of somebody other than the United States. As Bush himself put it: "We've got a global economy. It's not just one country that solves a problem."
The politically unhappy result was evident in what White House officials were reduced to confiding to reporters: that the president had played a prominent role in shaping the language of a communique. This is certain to be a great comfort to the almost 10 million unemployed here at home. In fact, it was a no-win situation all along.
It is true that opinion polls still give President Bush higher marks for competence on foreign policy than either Democratic candidate Bill Clinton or independent Ross Perot. That is hardly surprising since neither Arkansas nor the computer business has a foreign policy. But the polls also show that when voters are asked to list their principal concerns, foreign policy questions are no longer on the list.
The core of the president's political trouble, however, is not that he has this reputation for expertise on foreign policy that is a clear asset. Instead, it is that there is no corresponding image of him as equally effective on -- or even interested in -- the issues that concern the electorate this year. The pictures of the president posing for cameras with the other G-7 participants would not be so jarring if there was also the perception that he gives the same weight to domestic concerns. Instead, they are being handled with media events such as the president meeting with schoolchildren while resubmitting his plan for helping parents send their kids to private schools and the president at the stock-car races with the real Americans rather than the cultural elite.
These days even the media events are going sour. It's hard to imagine anything much more embarrassing than the president being booked at an all-American, small-town July 4 celebration only to discover that it's being held in an all-white town that had been the site of a Ku Klux Klan rally the previous year.
Meanwhile, time is becoming a factor in the campaign. The president's managers, who have a penchant for fighting the last war, seem to remain confident that Bush can turn the tide in the campaign with another stirring speech at the Republican National Convention in Houston next month and with an emphasis -- on display daily from Vice President Dan Quayle -- on "family values." The combination of having the right values and being a safe steward of foreign and national defense policy should be enough, they argue, to win a second term. The election, Quayle reminds us, is going to be about "character," the implication being that this deals out Bill Clinton.
But the operative question is whether anyone in the White House or Bush campaign recognizes the remarkable changes in the political context this year. The electorate inevitably will be different from the one in 1988, skewed both by the candidacy of Perot and by the emotional content of such issues as abortion rights. And the focus, according to every political measure, will be on issues -- principally the condition of the economy -- that played little part in 1988.
Given those realities, the president's mission to Munich might better have been conducted under the cover of darkness.