WASHINGTON — "I've been a co-pilot for seven years," Vice President George Bush said in his concluding statement at the recent GOP presidential debate. "And I know how to land a plane in a storm."
That figure of speech was striking, coming as it did from the junior partner to a President who has invariably talked about economic takeoffs, not descents. Bush's move toward a bleaker assessment of the national condition reflects trepidations widely shared by other White House aspirants in both parties.
And it signals a dramatic transformation in the strategic outlook for the 1988 presidential campaign. This change is directly attributable to what most analysts now regard as the most portentous event so far in the campaign--last month's record plunge in stock prices.
Situation in State of Flux
The situation in both parties remains in a state of flux as the turmoil in the financial markets continues. But already it is clear that a new and more serious political reality is emerging, one that forces candidates to adjust old positions and develop new ones under conditions of intense public scrutiny.
To fully appreciate the change, it helps to recall the economic circumstances governing the campaigns in each party before Wall Street's Black and Blue Monday.
--Republicans: With unemployment dropping and inflation still relatively low, GOP contenders generally viewed the economy as their prime asset. They argued among themselves over who had the best claim to being heir to President Reagan's economic policies.
--Democrats: Some candidates predicted dire economic consequences from the huge budget and trade deficits. But, for the most part, their campaigns seemed to focus on the character traits of their rivals and on sometimes esoteric differences over nuclear arms.
Both Parties Shifting
Now the Republican candidates are suddenly concentrating on developing solutions to the Reagan Administration's legacy of economic problems, and the Democrats are bolder in condemning Reagan's economic policies even if most are slow to offer specific alternatives of their own.
David Keene, senior policy consultant to Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, chief rival to Republican front-runner Bush, sees "a significant change in the psychology of the campaign," marked by "an increased level of apprehension." From now on, Keene predicted, "voters are going to look much more closely at the policy choices offered by the candidates."
Dole, who more than any other Republican candidate had previously called attention to the risks of running enormous budget deficits, has now made reducing the deficit an imperative.
"I don't think we understand the urgency of the problem," he warned during the same Republican debate in which co-pilot Bush promised a safe landing. "We'd better get with it."
'Blue Chips to Cow Chips'
Former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., looking back on the October crash, said: "We watched blue chips turn into cow chips." He added: "This campaign is changing importantly. This means we cannot conduct politics as usual."
And even New York Rep. Jack Kemp, who has played down the importance of the budget deficit, acknowledged: "I am convinced that we're entering an age in which we have some stark choices."
On the Democratic side, as might be expected, the language has been harsher.
"This wasn't simply a correction in the stock market; it was an earthquake," declared Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.
Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. bemoaned "this crisis of confidence in our economy."
And former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt was characteristically blunt. "The fundamentals if we are honest are these," he declared on Oct. 19, when the Dow Jones industrial average plunged 508 points. "We must cut spending and raise taxes."
Quick With Judgments
With few exceptions--notably Babbitt, who is commended for his forthrightness even by critics of his proposals--candidates in both parties have been quicker to issue rhetorical judgments than to devise explicit solutions.
One explanation can be found in public opinion polls indicating that voters do not yet regard the stock market crash as having far-reaching impact on the economy and on their own lives. Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, as yet unaffiliated with any presidential candidate, said results from one survey found "no difference" in voter evaluations of the economy after the Oct. 19 crash, as compared to shortly before it.
But the same survey, Mellman said, found "substantial concern" about the health of the economy even before the crash, and he believes that the concern will ultimately grow.
In the Times Poll conducted from Oct. 29 to Nov. 2, 18% of those interviewed cited a further fall in stock prices as the gravest danger to the economy, and another 18% cited the budget deficit as the most serious threat, compared to 23% who named unemployment.
Remedies Found Unpopular