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The Democrats' Game? Call it 'Waiting for Cuomo' : Politics: The presidential campaign looms, and the Democrats' top 10 prospects all have pluses and minuses, but there's no rush to announce.

December 23, 1990|William Schneider | William Schneider, the Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Visiting Professor of American Politics at Boston College, is a contributing editor to Opinion

WASHINGTON — Here it is almost 1991, and according to the inexorable logic of the political calendar, the 1992 presidential campaign is about to begin. So who's lining up on the Democratic side to compete for the big prize? Answer: nobody. They say you can't beat somebody with nobody, but the Democrats seemed determined to try.

Think of it: George Bush is a colorless and odorless political entity, in trouble in his own political party, presiding over a nationwide recession. And the Democrats can't find anyone to run against him.

Why not? Well, for one thing, the Democrats have tried just about everything they know how to do. A moderate Southerner? Jimmy Carter, 1980. An old-fashioned New Deal Democrat? Walter F. Mondale, 1984. A newfangled high-tech Democrat? Michael S. Dukakis, 1988.

Democrats were deeply demoralized by what happened to them in 1988. To make matters worse, Bush looked pretty good for the first 18 months of his presidency. The economy was stable. Peace was breaking out all over. And the President was getting record-high approval ratings. Understandably, Democrats were not lining up to be the next Dukakis.

Then the President started getting into trouble. Bush enraged conservatives--and many others--by abandoning his "no new taxes" pledge. The economy slid into recession. The budget deal turned into a political fiasco.

The Democrats discovered a message: "Tax the rich." They hammered the Republicans with this message right up until Election Day, when they discovered that the voters didn't want to hear any more about taxes.

The Persian Gulf crisis makes running against Bush even more problematical. After Bush announced the troop buildup, his ratings started to drop. Bush may not have frightened Saddam Hussein, but he scared the American people. They thought he was about to start a war.

Then Bush announced an exchange of envoys with Iraq, and the public breathed a collective sigh of relief. The President was giving peace a chance. Not only did Bush's ratings go up, but Americans seemed more prepared than ever to go to war.

So what are the chances of the Democrats retaking the White House? They don't lack potential candidates. Let's look at the Top Ten non-candidates, two by two.

New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley are the big boys of the 1992 race. They come from important states and they have national name recognition, serious reputations and a lot of campaign money. They have something else in common, too. They both got burned last month. Voters in New York and New Jersey, angry over tax hikes and declining economies, reelected Cuomo and Bradley by embarrassingly thin margins.

Right now, the entire Democratic presidential campaign might be described as "Waiting for Mario." The New York governor clearly enjoys the sport. Just last week, Cuomo came to Washington to deliver a vigorous attack on President Bush's economic policies. He described Bush as the captain of a ship about to have a collision with what he thinks is another ship. Captain Bush keeps ordering the other ship to change course. Nothing happens. Finally, Bush hears a voice from the radar screen: "I am the lighthouse. You change course."

The implication is obvious: Maybe it's time to get a new captain. "I don't have any plans," Cuomo said when asked. Until 1984, nothing of importance happened until Ted Kennedy held a press conference and announced his campaign intentions. But no one is waiting for Teddy any more. In this race, as in the last one, nothing of importance will happen until Cuomo announces whether he is in or out.

Cuomo's message, like Kennedy's, resonates deeply with Democratic partisans--sharing, family, compassion, mutuality. To others, it sounds like taxing and spending. But if the recession is long enough and deep enough, it will begin to sound good to them, too.

Bush's weaknesses are Cuomo's strengths. Bush is a wimp; Cuomo is a tough guy. Bush was born to wealth and privilege; Cuomo came out of the immigrant saga. Bush has a problem with "the vision thing"; Cuomo is a visionary. Bush is a clumsy and prosaic speaker; Cuomo is eloquent and poetic.

If Cuomo runs, however, he will have to deal with a deep and abiding American prejudice. Not against Catholics or Italian-Americans. Against New York City. You can see the ad now: "Mario Cuomo. He'll do for America what he did for New York City." Racial violence. Gridlock. Junkies. Beggars. Tourists slain in subways. Joggers brutalized in Central Park. The word in Washington is that Republican consultant Roger Ailes already has the ad in the can.

In Washington, the governor joked that when people hear the name Mario Cuomo, "Everybody thinks he's a bodyguard in 'The Godfather.' " Wrong movie. Cuomo's problem isn't "The Godfather." It's "Bonfire of the Vanities."

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