WASHINGTON — The economic and psychological shock waves from this week's stock market plunge are rocking the national political landscape and thrusting the presidential candidates of both parties out onto one of the slipperiest slopes of the 1988 campaign.
Seeming to offer opportunities for gaining precious political advantages by casting blame and proposing solutions, Wall Street's debacle presented temptations for White House aspirants that were hard to resist.
But the perils inherent in reaching for such prizes also were clear. The continuing volatility of financial markets here and abroad--coupled with nagging uncertainty about what the upheaval means for the U.S. economy as a whole--created a situation in which attempts to gain a step on the opposition today could produce more harm than good tomorrow.
Peril of Assumptions
Laying down a rule of thumb for candidates in both parties, GOP consultant and presidential campaign veteran Eddie Mahe Jr. said: "The thing they should all be is cautious, and not make statements on some assumption that turns out to be false."
Nothing illustrated the pointedness of that advice better than the experience of GOP contender and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, who some thought stood to benefit more from the financial turbulence than any of his Republican rivals.
In the immediate wake of the stock exchange nose dive Monday, Dole issued a call for action and presidential leadership. "Someone has to take charge here," the Kansas Republican said on the Senate floor.
But Wednesday, informed during a midday press conference that the Dow Jones average was then up 195 points, Dole appeared to have second thoughts. "Maybe you don't do anything," he said. "Maybe you find out what the problem is first" and then "find out how to address it."
Indeed, as the week wore on, with the nation's attention swinging back and forth from the arrhythmic thumping of its financial heart in Lower Manhattan to its beleaguered policy-makers in Washington, evidence mounted that attempting to seize political advantage during the crisis entailed risks as well as potential opportunities for individual candidates and for their parties.
Particularly at first, many politicians held the view that Monday's price collapse--statistically overshadowing even the somber memories of the black days in October, 1929--represented an irreversible setback to the Republican Party.
"For a long time people have been saying there was a hitch to Reaganomics," contended Democratic consultant and National Committee member Mark A. Siegel. "Now public confidence has been so badly shaken it won't recover."
And some Republicans agreed that it was hard to see a bright side for the GOP. "What's happened clearly can't be viewed as beneficial to the Republican Party," conceded Richard B. Wirthlin, longtime pollster and adviser to President Reagan who has just signed on for a similar role in the Dole campaign.
But others were skeptical that there would be any lasting impact from this week's shocks, assuming that no further economic disasters follow.
"Americans are so conditioned to shocks" that they will soon be able to shrug off this one, predicted Larry Sabato, University of Virginia political analyst.
Besides, Democrats--and even Republicans--had to avoid seeming overeager in exploiting the situation, lest they appear callously opportunistic in a time of national distress.
"The politics of opposition is unfortunately that you have to hope for the worst, and that puts you in a bad light with the rest of the country," Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said.
That point seemed to occur to Democratic contender Richard A. Gephardt, although somewhat belatedly. Thought by some to be in a good position to benefit from the week's distress because his candidacy has focused on economic issues, Gephardt at first charged that Reagan's economic policies were the root of the stock market's problems. But soon afterward, the Missouri congressman issued a statement saying it was time "to think about the country, not politics."
Similarly, Dole's experience as Senate Finance Committee chairman and his independence from the Administration could help him in a time of economic difficulties. Wirthlin asserted that "given the record that Sen. Dole has established in reducing the deficit and his position on economic issues," the senator was "in the strongest position" of all GOP candidates to deal with the stock market crisis.
Yet Dole ran the risk of appearing disloyal in the eyes of Reagan supporters if he showed too much aggressiveness in pressing such advantages.
Bush Closely Linked
Not surprisingly, this point was made with particular emphasis by supporters of Vice President George Bush, who figured to suffer most from the Reagan Administration's misfortunes because he is the candidate most closely linked to it.