Bush would not have won, even if he had a Somalia



WASHINGTON -- There is some obvious political irony in th decision to send American troops into Somalia. If this situation had come to a head six weeks ago, President Bush might have won re-election to a second term.

The Democrats always feared an "October surprise" -- meaning some foreign policy crisis that would argue against electing an untested young governor of Arkansas to the presidency. And if Somalia hardly qualifies as a crisis in terms of American interests, it has many of the trappings.

The president making the announcement on television, the briefing by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, the film of troops climbing onto trucks and airplanes -- all these were staples of the war in the Persian Gulf 18 months ago that sent President Bush's favorable ratings into the 90 percent range.

This situation is, of course, not really comparable. The military mission looks less imposing, and so does the opposition. But there is an understandable reluctance among the voters to take any risks where national security questions appear involved, even if only peripherally.

So, at the very least, it seems the president has been victimized once again by some unfortunate timing. The same could be said of the steady flow of economic numbers that have come out over the last few weeks and projected a picture of an economy that may be on the mend.

The situation in Somalia makes what is perhaps a more valid argument to support the thesis that Bush has been politically snake bitten. The president's prime case against Bill Clinton, after several months of floundering around in search of a message, was that electing him would be too much of a chance to take in an uncertain world.

Closing out the second presidential debate, Bush had conjured up a vision of a telephone call in the middle of the night to warn the president that an international crisis had arisen and that there were decisions to be made.

The president and his managers were convinced that this was the issue that could be used to exploit the checkered history of Bill Clinton in avoiding the draft during the war in Vietnam.

At the very least, they believed such a situation could give some meaning to their contention that someone who has not served in the military is inadequately prepared.

With the Cold War history, however, the voters were less inclined to buy that argument. On the contrary, they showed they understood quite fully the difference between the threat posed only a few years ago by the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal and a small war in the Persian Gulf.

It would have not been surprising if they made the same distinction in the case of Somalia, an issue that has been forced into their consciousness only because of the vivid television network coverage of the starving children.

The opinion polls all along showed that Americans believed Bush far better prepared than Clinton to deal with an international crisis. But they also showed that this qualification was far less important than the president's failure to demonstrate sensitivity

on domestic problems and to produce a coherent economic program.

Thus, in a sense, the possibility of a situation like the one in Somalia or, for that matter, the Persian Gulf was factored into the voters' thinking but simply not given a great deal of weight.

Nor in the end did they buy the thesis that Clinton's history in avoiding the draft and protesting against the war in Vietnam was a valid issue at all, at least not when compared with replacing a president who had worn out his welcome on domestic matters.

The question of whether Bush might have been saved by different timing is one that can never be answered.

It calls to mind an incident at the end of the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976 when Rep. Morris Udall had finished second to Jimmy Carter in 16 primaries and caucuses to choose delegates.

Udall was asked if he ever brooded on what might have been if he had done this or that differently enough to win a few primaries. "I can't allow myself to dwell on that," he replied. "If I'd have done something different, Carter would have, too. Who knows how it would have turned out."

That's the problem with playing the "if" game. It never ends. If my aunt had wheels, she'd be a tea cart.

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