Washington -- THE MOST intriguing mystery in American politics today is the apparent contradiction between what the voters think about President Bush and the state of the nation.
On the one hand, surveys find Bush consistently getting positive marks from 70 to 75 percent of the voters. On the other, the polls also find strong majorities, 55 to 60 percent, of the same voters believe the country is off "on the wrong track."
The ultimate solution to this mystery should speak volumes about the chances of the Democrats making a close contest of the 1992 presidential election.
In the past there usually, although not always, has been some correlation between the approval ratings given a president and the state of mind of the electorate. The only relationship that appears now seems to be an inverse one.
There are some obvious inferences that can be drawn. One is that the voters don't see any connection between their warm regard for Bush and the question of whether the country is going to hell in handbasket. Taken a step further, it might even be inferred that the voters are cynical enough to believe that the performance of a president doesn't make that much difference in determining national directions.
Democrats view the apparent anomaly somewhat differently. Their view is that the voters have been delayed in making the connection between their own concerns and George Bush's performance -- in some measure because the president is still bathed in the glow of the military success in the Persian Gulf. Once that connection is made, they contend, those extraordinarily high personal approval ratings enjoyed by Bush will begin to fall.
We are about to find out. One of the reasons Bush's standing has been so high is that he has been the subject of so little intense and direct criticism. Although Bush likes to complain about how he is being "pounded," two factors have given him a layer of insulation most incumbent presidents don't enjoy -- the war and the fact that the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has been delayed for several months.
The history of election cycles shows that even apparently strong incumbents suffer some decline in their approval ratings when they are being constantly attacked by opposition candidates competing for their party's nomination and getting heavy press attention. Although it may seem laughable today, Richard M. Nixon was running essentially even -- that is, within the statistical margin of error -- against both Edmund S. Muskie and George McGovern at different times during the spring of 1972. Going into the 1984 campaign the approval rating for President Ronald Reagan was 54 percent in a Gallup Poll, impressive but not as intimidating as he proved to be later that year.
So the question now is whether Bush suffers a similar decline as Democrats put aside their reluctance to attack him. The evidence that they are doing so is abundant. In the last two weeks Bush has been assailed on a variety of issues by Sens. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV of West Virginia and Tom Harkin of Iowa and Govs. Mario Cuomo of New York and Bill Clinton of Arkansas, all probable or possible candidates, and by Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey.
So far the attacks on Bush have not been given the kind of intense media coverage that drive home the Democrats' arguments. But once three or four of these Democrats declare themselves formally as candidates, as is likely shortly after Labor Day, that coverage will become more focused.
Despite the lofty approval ratings for Bush personally, there are grounds for some Democratic hope in the fine print. For one thing, only about half the voters -- the exact number depending on which poll you accept -- believe Bush "deserves re-election." This "re-elect number," in the poll-takers' lexicon, is impressive but not overwhelmingly. Perhaps more to the point, there are pluralities and in some cases majorities who don't approve Bush's performance on particular issues such as health care that the voters also identify as important concerns.
Reagan had a similar experience. He was twice elected when most voters disagreed with him on many specifics. The reading of the experts then was that Reagan was seen as sincere enough in his beliefs that voters were willing to accept differences of opinion on particulars. But the Democrats have to believe that Bush is not another Reagan.