When George Bush won the presidency four years ago, he was heralded as the first incumbent vice president to capture the White House since Martin Van Buren pulled off this feat in 1836. Is he now to suffer Van Buren's fate: a defeat after just one term, with mocking opponents chanting "Van, Van, the used-up man"?
Mr. Bush's task as Republicans gather in Houston tonight for the opening of their 35th national convention is to demonstrate convincingly that he is anything but a "used-up man." It will not be easy. At 68, he would be the second-oldest president ever elected, second only to Ronald Reagan. His health is not the best. Close observers note a weariness and frustration with the whole political process, an increasingly frenetic pattern of behavior and a passivity that drives battle-eager Republicans to distraction. Like the Van Buren platform, the Bush re-election platform is of the small tent, not the big tent, variety.
Yet this president is also a proven fighter who has vowed he will do whatever is necessary to defeat Bill Clinton just as he did in Michael Dukakis in the 1988 election. Despite their doubts about their candidate, Republicans in Houston should not doubt him on this score. An air strike at Iraq during or after the convention could galvanize a stalled and stymied campaign, whatever its foreign policy justifications.
As Bush handlers awaited tonight's opening gavel, they were desperately hoping the convention would be a "defining moment" for George Bush, an occasion when he would generate a "convention bounce" with "the speech of a lifetime," two other cliches in current fashion. GOP party chairman Rich Bond revealingly told the story of overhearing one Houston-bound first-class passenger lament:. "If Bush would only give me one reason for voting for him I'd do it." Campaign general chairman Robert Mosbacher said yesterday he would gladly settle for a convention bounce that leaves Mr. Bush only 10 or 12 points behind Governor Clinton. Compare this to the pull-even result of 1988's GOP convention.
This is a president in trouble. The economy is flat. The grand conservative coalition in which libertarians and moralists could coexist within the magic confines of the Reagan persona is falling apart. The nation is obsessed by domestic problems that are hardly Mr. Bush's strong suit.
Yet the campaign is far from over. If Mr. Bush can get voters to understand their personal well-being is tied to experienced management of world affairs, if he can come up with an economic plan that is more convincing than Mr. Clinton's offerings, above all if he can convince the country he is prepared and eager and up to leading the country for another four years, he may not be dismissed as a "used-up man." The Houston convention will not be his salvation, but if he flubs it he may again be following in Van Buren's footsteps, this time in ways not intended.