Parties look at history to parallel '92 election ON POLITICS

September 04, 1992|By Carl P. Leubsdorf | Carl P. Leubsdorf,Dallas Morning News

Twelve years after Ronald Reagan wrapped himself in the mantle of Franklin D. Roosevelt, President Bush is seeking to bolster his re-election campaign by evoking memories of another Democratic president, Harry S. Truman.

Like the winner of the biggest upset victory in modern presidential history, Mr. Bush is using a Congress controlled by the opposition party as his chief political whipping boy, blaming congressional Democrats for his inability to achieve his 1988 economic promises.

Democrats have moved quickly to challenge the president's claim to be his heir (the White House won't say if Mr. Bush actually voted for Truman). Last week, Margaret Truman Daniel assailed the notion, saying her father would surely oppose Mr. Bush's re-election. And Bill Clinton plans a Labor Day appearance in Truman's hometown, Independence, Mo.

While Mr. Bush has stressed the Truman parallel, other Republicans have likened this year's contest to the 1976 race in which Gerald Ford almost overcame an even bigger deficit than Mr. Bush faced this summer. Some see a hopeful parallel in April's British election, in which Conservative Prime Minister John Major won an unexpected victory.

The use of historical parallels is always tricky, since history never exactly repeats itself. Indeed, both parties are seeking solace by citing past contests that they believe point to their success in this one.

The Democrats have three role models. They are 1960, when a youthful, charismatic John Kennedy beat the more experienced Richard Nixon; 1976, in which an untried Southern governor named Jimmy Carter beat a battered GOP incumbent; and 1980, when an unpopular incumbent with low approval numbers like Mr. Bush lost to a former governor who promised major changes in Washington.

These appear to be at least as valid as the three elections the GOP is now citing. Indeed, a look at the 1948 and 1976 U.S. elections and the 1992 British election reveal some significant differences with the situation Mr. Bush faces this year.

It's true that Truman's relentless assault on the "do nothing" Republican Congress was a major ingredient in his 1948 victory. But it was far from the only one.

For one thing, that election took place during the post-World War II economic boom. Though polls showed Truman was behind, good times have always helped incumbents, and that proved to be a major factor. Indeed, if the economy were as good in 1992 as it was in 1948, Mr. Bush's re-election probably wouldn't be in much doubt.

Another crucial aspect in 1948 was that Truman was very successful in contrasting his Midwestern, rural roots and the Eastern, urban image of his Republican opponent, New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey. Unlike later Democratic candidates, Truman won virtually every Western state, including California.

Finally, it's clear that Republican overconfidence -- and the GOP's failure to react to the aggressive Truman campaign -- was a major factor. While some Republicans were aware of the risks of the Dewey strategy, campaigns didn't benefit then from the automatic wake-up calls that modern polls and aggressive television now provide.

On the surface, the 1976 parallel seems more apt. Amid a slow economy, a Republican president narrowed the gap against a youthful Southern governor by sowing public doubt about his lack of experience and his economic policies.

But the similarities were "mostly superficial," noted Douglas Bailey, a key GOP consultant in that campaign who now publishes the daily political Hotline.

In a recent article in the Washington Post, Mr. Bailey cited three differences: the unelected Mr. Ford was a fresh face to many Americans who had never been formally introduced to him before the campaign, the Communist menace provided a strong argument against an inexperienced president and the country's mood, while not good, was improving.

Besides, in the end, Mr. Ford lost, hardly the parallel that Mr. Bush would like to repeat.

By contrast, in Britain this spring, Mr. Major decisively won an election that virtually everybody believed would result in either his loss or an inconclusive outcome. He did so by using the tactic the Bush campaign is using: creating doubts about the opposition and fear of the unknown.

If Mr. Bush can narrow the gap with Mr. Clinton, some analysts feel the doubts he is sowing could help him finish the job.

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