Losing His Religion

Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part series by Wilson on the Republican party.

ELEVEN MONTHS AGO, George Bush was on top of the political world. Flushed with a dazzling success in the Gulf, the Commander in Chief reaped popularity ratings of 89 percent (according to Gallup), the highest since such polls have been taken.

Within months, Senators John D. Rockefeller IV and Albert Gore Jr. '69 and Representative Richard A. Gephardt--the heavy hitters of the Democratic party--spared us the vicissitudes of Cuomo-esque posturing and bowed out under the assumption that Bush could not be beaten. The country seemed destined for five more years of Dana Carvey's gesticulating impressions.

My, how times change. An already weak economy plunged into a recessionary "freefall" (Bush's own term). United Nations investigators found that Saddam Hussein, entrenched as ever, still possessed nuclear technology. And voters increasingly demanded attention to domestic affairs and questioned Bush's leadership abilities.

A host of second-tier Democrats joined Paul E. Tsongas, the seemingly quixotic candidate who would prove to be astute in predicting the Bush decline. Bush's disapproval ratings, once in the single digits, swiftly spiraled upward.

And just when things seemed bad enough, Patrick J. Buchanan, darling of the right wing, entered the fray. Suddenly, Bush faced the growing likelihood of an early retirement.

The threat to Bush from a fellow Republican should not be written off. Four times since World War II, an incumbent president has faced a strong challenger from within his own party. The incumbent failed to return to the Oval Office in each of these cases.

In 1952, the irascible Harry S Truman was hammered by Estes Kefauver in New Hampshire and faced an even stronger challenge from Adlai E. Stevenson, forcing Truman to call it quits. LBJ met the same fate in 1968 when "Clean" Gene McCarthy captured 42 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, giving Robert F. Kennedy '48 a reason to drop his hat into the ring.

Two incumbents survived longer, only to lose in the general election. Gerald R. Ford, bruised and battered from a tough campaign against Ronald Reagan, could not hold on to the presidency in 1976. The winner of that race, Jimmy Carter, met the same fate four years later, when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54-'56 made another foray into presidential politics.

In the last four decades, no candidate who has lost the New Hampshire primary has gone on to be elected president. Not one. And if any state can be expected to be unhappy with Bush, it is New Hampshire.

New Hampshire's economy is one of the most depressed in the nation. Voter disenchantment generated by such economic hard times is a powerful tool that can be wielded by Bush opponents. In addition, New Hampshire voters feel the president has betrayed them.

As Bush, former New Hampshire Governor John H. Sununu and a number of political pundits have argued, Bush's 1988 primary win in the Granite State played a critical role in securing him the Republican nomination.

He won over New Hampshire voters, of course, with his now (in)famous "no new taxes" pledge. Bush's popular vow proved too much for Sen. Robert Dole, who waffled on the same issue, and soon threw in the towel and headed back to Kansas. Nevertheless, Bush later abandoned his most sacred political pledge, a promise whose appeal had rescued him from the snowdrifts of New Hampshire.

WHILE BUSH, then, is clearly more vulnerable now than could have been imagined one year ago, I am not about to argue that his weaknesses are severe enough to open the door for a Democratic administration. Bush has yet to play all the cards in his hand.

The Republican campaign team, which he is only beginning to deploy, boasts success in five of the last six presidential elections. In the coming months, he can turn to attack America's number one whipping boy, the U.S. Congress (and, by association, its Democratic majorities), for hardly considering his proposals on education, housing, energy and the capital gains tax cut.