GOP insiders express uncommon pessimism ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

October 21, 1992|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

LANSING, Mich. -- As the presidential campaign goes into its final two weeks, an uncommon pessimism bordering on resignation appears to have gripped many Republican Party leaders and functionaries. Reports are rife of job resumes circulating madly around Washington and the country from Bush administration officeholders at fairly high levels.

Casual conversations with those encountered on the campaign trail, all off the record to be sure, reflect a sense that barring a political miracle between now and Nov. 3, they will be looking at the want ads after the election, or at least letting the professional headhunters know they will be available come the next Inauguration Day, Jan. 20. Some even engage in speculation on who will get the top jobs in the Clinton administration.

What is uncommon about the pessimism is that, even in their four losing presidential races since World War II, Republicans approached Election Day either with expectations of victory or with self-delusion. Neither of these attitudes seem to exist today among many members of the Grand Old Party.

The polls certainly provide an abundant rationale for pessimism, but so did they in 1964, when they indicated -- and proved to be true -- that Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee, was going to be snowed under by the Democratic incumbent, Lyndon B. Johnson.

Many of the Goldwaterites, however, remained convinced of victory to the end. They fantasized that a host of voters who constituted "the silent majority" would rise up to smite the liberal incumbent. On election night, they were crestfallen that it didn't happen.

In the other years of Republican presidential defeats -- 1948, 1960 and 1976 -- pessimism did not set in for the simple reason that the GOP nominee either was expected to win or came close to winning. In the famous 1948 upset by Democratic incumbent Harry S Truman over Thomas E. Dewey, the pollsters had Dewey so comfortably ahead that they stopped polling before the last weekend. All the pessimism was on the Democratic side, although Truman professed confidence throughout that he would be elected.

In 1960, the Republican nominee, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, was running neck-and-neck with the Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kennedy, and drawing crowds that were comparable to Kennedy's. And in 1976, incumbent President Gerald R. Ford was fast closing on Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter in the final days of the campaign.

A good part of the pessimism about Bush's re-election chances comes from a sense that the president has failed to make a persuasive case that a second Bush term would be much different from the first, at least on the domestic side. The last elected Republican president to lose -- Herbert Hoover in 1932 -- suffered from the same failure, and the Republicans know it.

Furthermore, Bush has fired his best political shots at Democratic nominee Bill Clinton without inflicting perceptible damage on him. After the president's rather benign performance in the second presidential debate in Richmond, questions were being raised about whether Bush already was losing heart.

That impression was underscored by the aggressive showing of Vice President Dan Quayle in his debate with Democratic running mate Al Gore. Quayle's performance put pressure on Bush to emulate his sidekick in Richmond, and when he failed to do so, many Republicans began to express privately whether he was preparing himself for defeat.

State-by-state polls have been breeders of pessimism. The president not only trails badly in most of the 10 largest states, but he is being diverted to defending his base in areas of the

country, notably the South, that he figured to have in his pocket.

At a time the Bush campaign should have settled on a few battleground states where he can pull out the election, insiders note that Bush has been spending valuable time in such states as Texas and Florida and making a train trip through Georgia and the Carolinas.

Finally, the pessimism runs so deep because only 20 months ago, after the Gulf war, Bush was considered a shoo-in. Many Republicans still hope that an upset is in the cards, but that's what it amounts to -- a hope.

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