WASHINGTON — Maybe Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. never said it; maybe the former Speaker of the House never referred to the Democratic presidential contenders as "turkeys." But that same impression is currently the biggest reason for Thanksgiving at the Bush White House--otherwise, it would be about as upbeat as a morgue.
Even congressional Democrats, interrupting cold sweats over Capitol Hill check bouncing, have been publicly joking about the race. Their party, they say, is blowing its best presidential opportunity in a generation on a choice between "two Elmers"--Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton as "Elmer Gantry," the fictional skirt-chasing, slick-talking Dixie preacher, and former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, as Elmer Fudd, the funny-talking, comic-book character. As for the serious contenders, that's all, folks. With Clinton prospering, there's not much chance anyone else can enter the race. And Jerry Brown, of course, is more scavenger than serious nomination prospect.
The Republican vulnerability lies with a President whose economic policies' ratings have long since crashed into Herbert Hoover territory, whose vision of the future is unidentifiable and for whom the GOP primaries have become a Chinese water torture of nationwide repudiation by fully 30% to 40% of his own party's supporters. In the past, weak presidential circumstances have often mobilized the great names of the U.S. history: the embarrassment of James Buchanan in 1860 begat Abraham Lincoln; the inconsequence of William Howard Taft put Theodore Roosevelt back on horseback; the tragedy of Hoover brought forth Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Bush vacuum, if we go by the caricatures, has brought forth the inadequacy of Slick Willy, Tsanctimonious Tsongas and Buchanan the Bully Boy.
That may be partly unfair. "Bully Boy" Patrick J. Buchanan, the President's primary challenger, is now being portrayed as a bigot, anti-Semite and semifascist by a Bush Administration that smugly designed Willie Horton ads, preempted Buchanan's criticism of Israel for the Dixie primaries and periodically funded three-quarters of the world's dictators,
Besides, Buchanan had an excuse: By putting some tricky ingredients of frustration politics into a peripherally mainstream political message, he has overshadowed and removed a threat to U.S. society--fellow GOP primary contender David Duke--that hand-wringing liberals and Bush aides were powerless to deal with. Buchanan, in turn, is a threat only to George Bush--mobilizing GOP primary voters, spotlighting the President's personal weakness and dividing his coalition.
This explains the recent smear tactics of Bush backers--who happily attended testimonials for Buchanan when his same rhetoric was aimed at Democrats. Let us stipulate that Buchanan lacks qualification for the Oval Office and that "beer-hall conservatism" is a description with some aptness. Beyond that, the ex-broadcaster ran a pretty successful series of early March primaries in the South, given that this was: Bush's strongest region; a 10-part logistical nightmare for an inexperienced candidate just getting organized, and a part of the country where Duke threatened to divide the anti-Bush vote and had to be squelched with just the right amount of overlap and no more.
Now Buchanan is in battered Michigan, belaboring "Bushanomics" as, in his words, "the unilateral economic disarmament" of this country against foreign competitors--but without much oomph. If he had pulled out all the stops--for example, cataloguing the dozens of foreign agents and lobbyists with positions in the Bush campaign and GOP apparatus--he might have gotten 35% to 40% of the vote and, with it, renewed momentum for a new round of April Bush-bashing.
But Buchanan seems to be inching back, pulling the sort of punches he needs to land, because the "cryptofascist bigot" innuendo has already begun grinding him down. That would be understandable; and besides, it's not as if Buchanan hasn't said things that support some of the charges. If he continues to ease off, then White House strategists will have less and less reason to worry about Buchanan inflaming the anti-Bush sentiments of 30% to 40% of the GOP coalition. This will let them turn their attention to the next challengers: the two Elmers.
OK. This is also a little unfair. Clinton is one hell of a bright, charismatic guy. He's also got the right political geography--Southern border state--and more or less the right ideology: centrist on social issues, responsible on economics but with a shrewd streak of populism and rising anger at the Pig-Out of the 1980s.