President Bush is riding high. His chastened Democratic political opposition is lying low. But the situation will not necessarily remain that way through 1992.
Bush is enjoying the highest approval ratings of any President in modern times--as much as 90% by some accounts, only two months after polling had shown sharply waning confidence in his presidency. A stunningly successful war has done it for him. And the economy is slowly moving upward, with the end of recession likely by midyear.
Any oddsmaker thus would make it at least 60-40 that the President, with Dan Quayle, Colin Powell or even John Candy on his ticket, will be reelected on a peace-and-prosperity platform in 1992. But several factors could make Bush vulnerable by then. And Democrats, with brains and luck, could make a decent run for the presidency.
The riding-high syndrome: Trouble has befallen modern Presidents who at moments of success or high popularity have been complacent or have overreached. Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon all left the presidency after seeming politically invulnerable just a few months earlier--Hoover doing nothing while depression and financial collapse hovered, Truman and Johnson getting bogged down in unpopular Asian wars, Nixon abusing presidential power in the Watergate scandal. Even political master Franklin Roosevelt overstepped in the mid-1930s when his Supreme Court-packing attempt was stymied and much of his New Deal legislation was ruled unconstitutional.
The changing agenda: With the Gulf War ended, public attention will return to the U.S. domestic agenda, where the President was perceived as faltering when the war began. Now possessing enormous political capital, Bush could choose to use it on behalf of an ambitious domestic policy package to be presented to Congress and the people. But he seems far more likely to stick with foredoomed initiatives, such as the capital-gains tax cut proposal and domestic energy-production incentives designed to reinforce the loyalty of conservative and business supporters. As the year goes on, the electorate increasingly will judge the President on issues then on the table--including the need for domestic economic and social renewal--and how he is faring with them. Thus the Democrats' opportunity.
Over the past 10 years, Democrats at the national level have for the most part submitted to Reagan/Bush terms of reference. Their responses have amounted to sporadic counter-fire--much of it opportunistic and wrongheaded. Among them: the grossly protectionist Gephardt amendment to restrict foreign trade, and the Moynihan proposal to cut payroll taxes by many billions without specifying how to make up for the revenue shortfall.
If the President complacently allows the domestic agenda to drift, Democrats could regain credibility with presentation of a coherent and comprehensive program to "get America moving again" through activist initiatives to create jobs, improve schools, eradicate drugs, rebuild public infrastructure, improve access to good health care, train and retrain the work force and, not least, to help the hungry and homeless whose numbers are growing. They could regain political initiative lost for 10 years to Republican Presidents who have paid little attention to these issues.