WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Like the farmers who tilled fields at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, Bush campaigners are confident that natural forces favor them. Rich Bond, GOP chairman, interviewed on television with a beach behind him, yawned about Bill Clinton's surge. Noting that four years ago Michael Dukakis led George Bush 51 percent to 34 percent, Mr. Bond said: ''You see behind me high tide. Time passes, gravity occurs, the tide goes out and low tide is on the way for Bill Clinton.''
But Mr. Clinton is not Mr. Dukakis, who was passive when attacked. And as Paul Tsongas can attest, Mr. Clinton can ''go negative.'' Furthermore, Mr. Bush in 1992 is not Mr. Bush in 1988. Back then he won because he was seen as an extension of Ronald Reagan. No more.
Mr. Bush's plan is less to attract voters than to portray Mr. Clinton in a way that repels voters, principally by associating him with the Democratic Congress. But the muddiness of Mr. Bush's message is apparent in Mr. Bond's response to the fact that domestic spending has exploded under Mr. Bush, growing twice as fast as under Jimmy Carter, faster even than under Lyndon Johnson.
Mr. Bond: ''The world is changing and that is what the American people want. As defense spending comes down, domestic spending increases. . . . And I don't see that there's anything wrong with that as long as you can control government spending overall.''
Interviewer: ''So you're in favor of this explosion of domestic spending?''
Mr. Bond: ''I'm in favor of cutting defense spending in appropriate ways . . . but then not seeing an explosion in spending that would go beyond what revenues are available. I think you've got to do a very strong control of government spending, but I don't care if it goes heavily into domestic spending as defense comes down. There's nothing wrong with that. Let's just pay for it with the right revenues, and let's not raise taxes.''
Making an anti-Congress campaign out of such slush is like making a sword out of applesauce. Mr. Reagan's last budget director, James Miller, notes that the Federal Register, which publishes regulations, grew to more than 67,000 pages in 1991, the highest number since President Carter, and real (inflation-adjusted) spending on regulatory agencies was 22 .
percent higher than in Mr. Carter's last year. So what is Mr. Bush's campaign slogan? ''Clinton would be even worse''?
What can Mr. Bush do? Almost anything would help, just to show he has a pulse. But five things would be especially reviving:
Sign an executive order indexing capital gains. This is equitable (people should not be taxed on inflation gains) and would trigger a surge of economic activity.
Fire bumbling Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, replace him with Jack Kemp, and instruct Mr. Kemp to end the credit crunch that is the primary reason for the economy's continuing sluggishness. Republicans run the regulatory apparatus that is keeping liquidity out of the banking system. If Mr. Bush cannot lead the country he should at least manage the bureaucracy.
Start a constructive war with Congress by vetoing the legislative appropriation bill -- the money, expected to be $2.3 billion, that Congress will spend on itself. This spending has soared in the last four years. The current bill had 143 votes against it in the House, just three short of the number needed to sustain a veto. Mr. Bush could get 30 more.
Replace Richard Darman, head of the Office of Management and Budget, with Minnesota Rep. Vin Weber, who is not running for re-election. Mr. Darman's fingerprints are all over the 1990 budget deal that involved Mr. Bush breaking his no-new-taxes promise. Mr. Weber, who turns 40 this week, deserves his reputation as one of conservatism's brightest lights.
Replace Vice President Quayle. Yes, he is the darling of the very conservatives who most despise Mr. Bush; and Mr. Bush has said he would keep Mr. Quayle; and this change might present a picture of an administration in turmoil, as did Mr. Carter's personnel changes in the summer of 1979.
Therefore, Mr. Quayle's replacement must be so exciting that he becomes the topic of conversation. The choice is obvious: Colin Powell would be good for the country and would scramble the political equation, perhaps for a generation. (I know I am repeating myself; I urged Powell for vice president four years ago.)
Probably none of these actions will be taken by the man who said he would do whatever it takes to get re-elected. Mr. Bush really is, as Clinton said in his acceptance speech, like George McClellan, the Civil War general who would not use the army. Mr. Bush won't use his office because he is one of those people who seek office in order to be something, not to do something.
Besides, George Bush and his minions, like Rich Bond waiting for the tide, seem as complacent as the residents of Johnstown, Pa., who scoffed at warnings about the earthen dam in the mountains northeast of town.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.