WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Sedulously avoiding the awkward point, Republicans have thoroughly discussed the possibility of a different vice-presidential nominee. But the more pertinent question is whether George Bush should withdraw from the race. A startling number of significant Republicans privately say they wish he would.
If he runs he almost certainly will lose, perhaps in a landslide that does considerable damage to his party. If he wins, his second term almost certainly will be even worse than most second terms, worse even than his first.
His approval rating is bobbing below 30 percent; more than 75 percent of the public believes the nation is ''on the wrong track''; he trails Bill Clinton by more than 25 points. Any of these three numbers would be an ominous augury less than 100 days before the election. And there is no precedent for anyone winning re-election in the teeth of three such numbers.
Last Sunday morning William Bennett, a veteran of the Reagan and Bush administrations, tip-toed to the verge of voicing on television a thought that other Republicans sometimes voice, passionately, among themselves -- that a Bush candidacy is, strictly speaking, pointless. Mr. Bennett, who refused to become co-chairman of Mr. Bush's campaign (he apparently believes the campaign's incompetence reflects the administration's vacuousness), said Mr. Bush should ''have a conversation with himself,'' beginning with this question: ''Do I really want to do this?''
There is a bitter joke making the rounds among Republicans. What is the difference between John Gotti and George Bush? Answer: Mr. Gotti has at least one conviction. Actually, Mr. Bush has one. It is that he should be president. He is by now a figure of genuine pathos because he is bewildered by the fact that more is expected of him than what has hitherto sufficed -- his belief that people like him should administer things.
For Republicans, the grim paradox is that the reason he should not run is the reason he will. He should not because he has no reason to, other than an ambition eerily disconnected from any agenda. But he will run because he regards a public purpose as ornamental, as a mere filigree on a quest for office.
That is why the Bush campaign, like Mr. Bush himself, uses words not to convey meaning but as audible confetti. For example, when Ross Perot was a threat, Mr. Bush's people eviscerated him as emotionally unstable, anti-constitutional, a potential tyrant and actual ignoramus. When Mr. Perot withdrew, Mr. Bush's people promptly praised him as ''wise'' and ''courageous.'' To them, words mean nothing because nothing means anything -- nothing, that is, except power or, more precisely, office. They do not have even the gravity that comes from craving power to effect change.
Mr. Bennett called the Bush campaign's rhetoric about the suddenly wise and courageous Mr. Perot ''shameless and cynical politics and it stinks.'' Mr. Bennett could have made a connection Orwell made: Such corruption of language indicates political nihilism.
Mr. Bush's meandering rhetoric stopped being amusing long ago, when it became recognizably symptomatic of two things. One is the incoherence that afflicts a public person operating without a public philosophy. The other is Mr. Bush's belief that he need not bother to discipline his speech when talking to Americans because the business of seeking their consent is beneath him.
It is futile for him now to reassert even his sound proposals -- for a line-item veto, for term limits, for school choice. Everyone knows he is ''for'' those things, in his fashion, which is to say inconsequentially. His most recent reaffirmation of his school choice proposal revealed his unfamiliarity with it. As Teddy Roosevelt said of William Howard Taft: He means well feebly.
Suppose Mr. Bush said the heck with it, I've got fish to catch and grandchildren to catch them with. Two things would happen. The intellectual claustrophobia of this city and the Republican Party would be instantly dissipated. And the Clinton-Gore bandwagon would be eclipsed until after the Republican convention ends Aug. 20.
That convention would be transformed from a meaningless ratifying instrument -- a prop in a campaign commercial few will watch -- into a deliberative, deciding body. Argument -- perhaps even thought -- would break out.
Today the political ''market'' is working well. Mr. Clinton is soaring because the Republican Party, as imperfectly exemplified by the Bush administration and campaign, is tired and arrogant. The vapid administration and the name-calling campaign are indistinguishable when Marlin Fitzwater is trotted out to denounce Al Gore as ''Mr. Sell-Out America.''
Republicans running for office are increasingly preoccupied with escaping the undertow of the sinking Bush presidency. Other Republicans talk openly of their plans for constructive lives in opposition. Dan Quayle says that if he thought the party's fortunes would be better with him off the ticket, he would withdraw. But do not expect such an avowal from the top of the ticket.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.