Dream On, Democrats

Right now Bush looks unbeatable, but his battered opponents are working on their winning fantasies

If you are a Democrat with a compulsion to run for president, this would be a good time to find a detox program for the ambition-addicted. President Bush's popularity is at Founding Father levels. The Republicans have a cassette full of your doleful prewar words about Desert Storm, ready for media man Roger Ailes to pin to your hide. Meanwhile, Bush's Warthogs--Rep. Newt Gingrich and Sen. Phil Gramm--are softening you up from the air, impugning your toughness if not your patriotism. Even if you voted for the war, as did Sens. Al Gore and Charles Robb, you still have to answer for your party, which opposed it almost en masse. "They're fair game," says Ailes.

Running for president requires an unshakable faith in your chances of victory. But this time it may require what theater critics call "the willing suspension of disbelief." It won't be enough merely to hope for a lingering recession. Democrats have to find new scenarios, rationales, game plans-- anything that allows them to surrender to the fantasy. The search is on. Here are their latest warm dreams, with the cold realities noted, too.

Bush's overzealous lieutenants overplay their Patriot Politics. Harsh rhetoric offends a nation mellowed by victory. Potential contenders Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, a war hero who lost part of a leg in Vietnam, and Tennessee Senator Gore are trying to make an issue of the GOP's patriotic pushiness. Reality check: another phrase for "overdoing it" is "driving your message home." Bush is the first president to win a major war since 1945. Most Democrats opposed him, and they'll have to explain why.

Bush has succeeded too well in the gulf and won't be able to meet his own new standards of prowess. Potential candidates such as House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo are pushing Bush to reach for a grander domestic agenda. "The only downside for Bush is that people will now expect the government to work," argues Democratic polltaker Stanley Greenberg. Reality check: people probably won't expect the government to work. And even if they do, it won't necessarily translate into support for a Democrat.

Cautious, sail-trimming big shots won't risk a run this time. The stage will be left bare for blunt-spoken Mr. Smiths. Their expectations of support will be so low that they will be freed to utter truths, from the left or the right. Some Democrats already are attracted to the role. Former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, who calls himself a "pro-business liberal," is likely to run. So might Boston academic John Silber. Kerrey, who is working on a national health plan, is intrigued. So is Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, the nation's first black elected governor and a self-proclaimed budget cutter. Reality check: with a late start, the ability to raise money fast will be at a premium, not an easy trick for long shots. And speaking harsh truths sometimes means alienating the basic Democratic constituencies which still rule the primaries.

A corollary to the liberated-long-shot scenario. Your real goal is not to win the presidency in 1992 but to position yourself for later. That would probably be Wilder's and Kerrey's rationale. The same notion could draw in Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas or New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley. "If you run a credible race and beat the expectations, you're the party leader for the next four years," says former Democratic whip Tony Coelho. Reality check: if you do get the nomination, you risk getting blown away by Bush. Then you suffer the same fate as Michael Dukakis. And there are no party leaders.

Democrats can't win Southern states in a presidential election these days. You can put together a thin Electoral College majority if you win the Northeast, the Midwest and the West Coast. Some Cuomo supporters, among others, advance this theory. Cuomo, who has plenty of cash on hand from his gubernatorial races, could make a big play in California, both in the primary and in the general election. Reality check: lose one big "targeted" state, lose the ball game. Also, you would have to waste time and money in the South to cover up your strategy.

Convince a well-known Democrat he'll earn a place in the party Hall of Fame by holding down congressional and local losses, especially in the South and Midwest. Some congressional Democrats want Gephardt to run on this rationale. He could start late and raise cash fast. Former Mondale campaign manager Robert Beckel is touting Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, the popular vice presidential candidate from 1988. Bentsen could run credibly in the South. He voted against the war authorization but is a decorated World War II vet. Reality check: candidates don't run to protect other people's jobs.

Find a businessman or a general, another Lee Iacocca. H. Ross Perot has been mentioned. Democratic archeologists have found traces of New Deal Democratic heritage in General Schwarzkopf's background. Reality check: Perot opposed the gulf war. And Ronald Reagan was once a New Deal Democrat, too.

A corollary to all scenarios. Bush's popularity must decline. Harry Truman's approval rating was 87 percent in July 1945-- and 32 percent the next year. The Beltway consensus is always blind. Even Republicans claim to fret about this. "Whatever the conventional wisdom claims to be true turns out to be wrong," says Bush polltaker and political guru Robert Teeter. "I worry about that." Reality check: in this century only two elected incumbent presidents lost bids for re-election. Also, Teeter didn't sound too worried.

ELEANOR CLIFT

He had it all. He was conservative before it was cool. His defense credentials were five-star. As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he had virtual veto power over everything from cabinet nominees to arms-control treaties with the Soviets. When it came to national-security matters, if Sam Nunn said, "Follow me," there was always a crowd.

Now the Georgia senator is one lonely guy. Nunn helped lead the fight against the war authorization and many Democrats voted with him, believing he'd provide political cover. But his camouflage turned out to be little more than mosquito netting. "The feeling around here is that he led them off a cliff," says a Senate Democratic aide. Nunn's presidential hopes likewise plunged: the once feared contender says he "cannot visualize any circumstances" that would make him a candidate in '92.

Nunn's fall from grace was set in motion two years ago when he torpedoed former Texas senator John Tower's nomination as secretary of defense. In his just published memoir, "Consequences," Tower portrays Nunn as a priggish tyrant bent on turning the confirmation fight into a moral crusade. The president never forgave Nunn for rejecting Tower largely over charges of alcohol abuse and womanizing. Bush pointedly did not consult Nunn during the months of planning that preceded Desert Storm, and he gave Nunn only an hour's notice last November on the decision to double U.S. troop strength in the gulf.

That stung Nunn in a sensitive place: his dignity. He retaliated by holding public hearings that featured a parade of military witnesses opposing the early use of force in the gulf. Had the war gone badly, Nunn might still be a hero. Instead, his two decades as Mr. Defense are no protection against GOP efforts to make him the poster child of the "appeasement Democrats."

With the first crocus of criticism, Nunn lowered his public profile. Even his owlish look, once a mark of intellect and seriousness, has become open to ridicule. At Bush's speech last week, Nunn could be spotted in the audience, wanly waving an American flag. He still has his Senate seat-- probably for life--but the luster he enjoyed as the opposition's commander in chief is gone. Some of the first homecoming troops went to Fort Stewart in Georgia. But it wasn't Sam Nunn's party.

Join the Discussion