`It Might As Well Be Just Bush On The Ballot'

Washington is a city dotted with statues of military heroes. But they're vastly outnumbered by the capital's legion of armchair generals, who have been busy spinning "nightmare scenarios" in which George Bush's desert adventure turns into a U. S. disaster. As the war winds down, one nightmare is finally coming to pass. But it's the Democrats, not the President, who are clutching the sheets in horror.

Operation Desert Storm has transformed George Bush, political wimp, into a macho combination of Teddy Roosevelt and John Wayne. And as Democrats look toward the 1992 election, many see a bleak future. Some worry that the party may lose the Presidency for the sixth time in seven tries and possibly give up its control of the Senate as well.

The Democrats hit themselves with the political equivalent of a Scud on Jan. 12. That's the day that 45 of 56 Democratic senators, and 181 of the 267 House Democrats, voted against a resolution authorizing the President to use force to expel Iraq from Kuwait. Worse, party leaders continued to argue that a ground war would lead to intolerable U. S. casualties. Republicans will seize on this dovishness to paint their opponents as unwilling to defend U. S. interests. Democrats, crows GOP strategist John Buckley, "have thrown away the key to the Republican lock on the White House."

'FREE-FALL.' None of this means that George Bush is unbeatable. His Administration might be rocked by scandal or a swooning economy. Or the rout of Iraq could lead a cocky White House into a major foreign blunder. But shell-shocked Democrats are bracing for the worst. "Without some unforeseen occurrence, we are going to have a Soviet-style election in 1992," sighs Democratic pollster Claibourne Darden. "It might as well be just Bush on the ballot."

The Republicans will work hard to inject the national security issue into congressional races in hopes of winning the seven seats they need for a Senate majority. Twenty of the 35 seats up in 1992 are held by Democrats, including 11 freshmen. Recent polls show that some first-termers, such as Terry Sanford of North Carolina, Brock Adams of Washington, and Wyche Fowler Jr. of Georgia could be vulnerable. "Democrats are in a free-fall," says National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Phil Gramm (R-Tex.). "Now, the public can see they're weak-kneed on defense."

The Democrats are in no mood for an Iraqi-style mass surrender, though. Pollster Geoffrey Garin says war euphoria will fade quickly, and with it, memories of Democratic opposition to the Administration's military aims. "The voters had mixed feelings before the war, and they will after," says Garin.

The Democrats' best hope is to wrench the debate back to the domestic front, where Bush's cautious policies put him at odds with much of the electorate. Party leaders will press for more spending on education, highways, and health care. "We drew a line in the sand in Saudi Arabia. Now, we need to draw a line down Main Street and start addressing our problems at home," says Tennessee Senator Albert Gore Jr. "Bush is vulnerable."

Some Democrats think they can turn a burst of postwar national pride to the party's advantage. "People think, `Hey, the weapons worked. Our government works,' " says Paul Tully, political director of the Democratic National Committee. " `If we can do this, why can't we compete? Why can't we have the best schools in the world? Why can't I drink the water?' "

WORST FEAR. Even if the party agreed on a message, it would still need a messenger. And that's where the Democrats get into serious trouble. One of their top guns, Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, wounded his chances for the White House by voting against the gulf resolution. And New York Governor Mario M. Cuomo is currently drowning in a $6 billion budget deficit, which is forcing him to increase taxes.

Democratic pros' worst fear is that with their big names scared off by Bush, the party, in an echo of 1972, may field a fringe candidate who could drag the entire ticket down. George McGovern, for one, has already startled Democrats by announcing that he's available.

No matter how invincible Bush looks, Democrats can do better than that. But their task isn't going to be made any easier by the political tableau that the President's handlers will orchestrate for the rest of the year. There will be endless victory parades, tearful reunions of soldiers and their families, and chest-thumping about America's triumph over the mother of all tyrants. Deflated Democrats can only watch the patriotic procession pass by--and wonder whether their hopes for political dominance have perished in the desert sands.