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August 16, 1992|William Schneider | William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion

HOUSTON — Here's a scenario: The President is a hapless figure who seems completely unable to lead the country--or manage his own reelection campaign. He is criticized, even within his own party, as ineffectual. He is unable to convey a sense of principle or direction.

The voters are angry and frightened. The economy is deteriorating. Americans have largely forgotten the President's significant foreign-policy achievements. By overwhelming margins, they believe the country has gotten off on the wrong track. There is a pervasive sense of malaise.

The opposition party nominates a candidate who appears to have everything the incumbent lacks--energy, ideas, toughness, resolve and a sense of direction. The White House tries to raise fears about what will happen to the country if the challenger is elected. They say he's too extreme. He's reckless. He can't be trusted.

Meanwhile, a ruthless Middle East tyrant is scheming. He wants to humiliate the President. His revenge will be to stand before the world on Inauguration Day and say, "I am still in power. The Great Satan is gone."

Welcome to 1980. George Bush, meet Jimmy Carter.

Like the Carter campaign 12 years ago, the Bush campaign can't seem to get any coherent message out. Every time the campaign tries to define itself, it faces a distracting news flap. Vice President Dan Quayle gets handed a hot potato. Bush and Quayle get caught defending their children's right to choose on abortion. A campaign strategist releases an embarrassingly crude attack on the Democrats. The President has to deal with tabloid allegations about infidelity.

Even worse, the Democrats don't seem to be making any mistakes. Michael S. Dukakis taught them one big lesson: Don't be a patsy. Bill Clinton doesn't just counterpunch. He preempts GOP attacks. Before the Republicans could attack him as a tax-raiser, Clinton went to the New Orleans Superdome, the very site where Bush uttered his fateful "Read my lips" pledge, and needled the President for breaking his promise.

The Democrats make sure that no charge goes unanswered--in the same news cycle. A GOP governor calls Clinton a tax-and-spend liberal. The Democrats immediately release quotes from the same governor praising Clinton's "innovative ways" and asserting the Arkansas governor is "not one of those liberals."

Commentators are actually talking about the Democrats as disciplined professionals. And the Republicans as the gang that can't shoot straight. Worse, people are beginning to feel sorry for Bush. "He's in over his head," they say. "A decent man, but he just can't get anything done." Those are the same things people said about Carter in 1980.

Meanwhile, the GOP is in a panic. First Republicans talked openly about getting Quayle off the ticket. Then they talked openly about getting Bush off the ticket. When it became clear neither was going to happen, they started talking about a "clean sweep" of the White House staff.

It's easy enough to blame Bush's problems on a bad economy. But the economy isn't all that terrible. It isn't nearly as bad as in 1979-80, when inflation and interest rates were soaring, or in the recession of 1981-82, when unemployment was more than 10%. (The latest figures put unemployment at 7.7%.)

Nonetheless, the level of public dissatisfaction is as high as it was under Carter in 1980. It is much higher than it was under Ronald Reagan in 1982. The explanation is simple: Voters perceive an absence of leadership.

The President doesn't seem to have any influence over what is happening in the country. Maybe the economy is making a sputtering recovery, but it doesn't appear to have anything to do with what the President is doing--because the President isn't doing anything.

By comparison, Reagan conveyed the image of leadership even when the economy was terrible. He gave the country a sense of purpose and direction. When he called on Americans to "stay the course" in 1982, millions did, even though his economic policies had never worked.

Bush couldn't possibly ask Americans to "stay the course." What course? The only course he ever had was "no new taxes," and he abandoned that two years ago. Instead, Republicans are pleading with him to "find a course."

What bothers voters about Bush is the same thing that used to bother voters about Carter, namely, that the President doesn't seem to be able to control events. Instead, he appears to be at their mercy.

What Bush has to do at the Republican National Convention is convince the country that, if he is reelected, Everything Will Be Different.

Bringing James A. Baker III back to the White House is a start. It's not that Baker is a great manager. It's that he's a great metaphor. What he did for the world, he'll now do for the country. Bush wants us to believe it's all part of a plan: First military security, then economic security. Act I, Bush and Baker change the world. Act II, they change the country.

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