Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Plus Ca Change...

..plus c'est la meme chose.

The Houston Chronicle

November 14, 1991, Thursday, 2 Star Edition

SECTION: B; Opinion; Pg. 18

LENGTH: 735 words

HEADLINE: Dems can't win on just domestic issues


PRESIDENT Bush seems rattled by sudden pressures to turn his attention to domestic problems.

But even as he tried at his Rome news conference to change the subject, he sounded a warning that next year's Democratic nominee would do well to heed.

First, Bush beat his breast with words voters are likely to hear in 1992 as often as they heard ""Willie Horton'' in 1988:

""If I had had to listen to advice from the United States Senate leadership, the Democrats -- or from the House, the leadership over there -- to do something about the Persian Gulf, we'd have still been sitting there in the United States, fat, dumb and happy, with Saddam Hussein maybe in Saudi Arabia.''

That may not be the political sledgehammer it appeared to be last winter. For one thing, it's not true -- Democrats supported the original dispatch of U.S. troops to defend Saudi Arabia, as well as economic sanctions on Iraq; and no one but Bush suggests that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would have invaded Saudi Arabia after these actions.

More to the point, however, are the indications of polls and focus groups that euphoria over the desert war has largely faded, owing to disappointment at an inconclusive outcome that left Saddam in power, and to concern for the domestic economy.

But in a more potent vein, Bush added that though Americans are hurting economically and need help, ""They don't need the president to forswear his obligations for national security and foreign affairs.''

They certainly don't, and any president who did so, or even appeared to, would court defeat. One reason, of many, why Jimmy Carter was not re-elected in 1980 was widespread public doubt about his willingness and capacity to represent the nation forcefully in its foreign and security policies.

Americans like to think their nation is No. 1 in the world, which is why the quick desert victory was so cheering -- if only briefly -- to a people hungry for a demonstrable victory. Whatever else they may think of their president, they expect him, as their representative, to be a formidable figure on the world stage. Winning a war, as Bush did, tends to make any president just such an international champion.

Thus, any candidate the Democrats nominate to run against Bush next year is not likely to win merely by denouncing the president on the economy (unless the country is in a depression on a scale approaching 1932) and other domestic issues. Those issues make Bush vulnerable; but voters also will have to be convinced that if a Democratic challenger is elected, the nation's foreign interests and its military security will be in strong, reliable hands.

This is more nearly a problem of personality than of experience. Ronald Reagan, for instance, was elected in 1980 with no foreign or security policy experience; but the public saw him as more trustworthy in these fields than Carter, whose standing as a tough guy had been hurt by his inability to win or force release of the hostages then held in Iran.

Similarly, in 1992, the problem for a Democratic nominee will not be the debatable question of his or her party's role in the desert war; rather, it will be that Bush himself organized an international coalition, led it and the nation, and won a war, however messy its diplomatic results. In doing so, he became ""presidential''; he showed himself capable of the primary duty the people demand of their leader -- strong assertion and defense of American interests in the world.

That may be a commentary on Americans -- that war is more convincing to them than, say, the peace that Carter maintained. But for the politics of 1992, the real question is whether any Democrat can match Bush's claim to be a proven presidential figure, validated by war and victory.