CHICAGO. — Chicago -- James Carville, the campaign adviser to Governor Clinton, has a game he plays with people these days. He asks his interlocutor to imagine that George Bush has called him to the White House and made this plea: ''I am given a minute on television to explain why I should be president for a second term -- what should I say?'' Mr. Carville claims he has never had a response that was compelling.
That is the impression one takes away from a book on Mr. Bush's presidency that is about to hit the stands. Aptly called ''Marching in Place,'' it is written by two men who have covered the White House, throughout Mr. Bush's presidency, for Time magazine -- Michael Duffy and Dan Goodgame.
The book (from Simon and Schuster) gives credit to Messrs. Bush the friend, Bush the war organizer and Bush the well-intentioned man of generally good behavior. But there is no sense of purpose to the years covered here. The days go by, filled with frenetic physical activity, boisterous family get-togethers and assiduous attention to a broad network of friends. But that network is maintained just for its own sake. It is not mobilized to accomplish anything. The only organizing principle the authors can find in the whole first term is this simple goal: re-election.
What would happen, the authors ask in the final pages, if Mr. Bush were re-elected and this single motive for general activity were removed from his second term?
This has not been a do-nothing presidency. It has been filled with activity, crammed with conversations and phone calls. It has done all kinds of things. But it has, for the most part, been a flurry of irrelevant activity. President Bush was there to make no waves, keep things calm, get by, survive.
There has been no challenge that would ignite the minds or ambitions or imaginations of young staffers, most of whom plan to leave in the second term, unchallenged and stagnating already.
The only people with ambitions fully at play in a second term would be the rivals for succession to Mr. Bush, and they -- with the exception of Dan Quayle -- would have to make their bid as outsiders willing to change what the president has been doing. That is as true of Jack Kemp as of Pat Buchanan. Even James Baker and Dick Cheney would have to distance themselves somewhat from the Bush-Quayle record in order to eliminate Mr. Quayle from contention.
The prospect, then, is of a Republican Party using the best energies left to it in subtle competition with or criticism of an administration drifting and listless to begin with, and predictably disoriented before it served out its next four years.
That is the pleasant prospect the Republicans have to offer us in Houston next month.
Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.