Washington. -- Have you seen the Timex ad featuring a photo of their product between the teeth of a dog named Mugsy? "Mugsy," the ad explains, "was pronounced dead after being hit by a car and was buried by his family in a 3-foot grave in their yard. The next morning they found Mugsy, with dirty nose and wagging tail, scratching at the back door."
To some, no doubt, Mugsy's shocking ordeal will be a compelling reason to buy a Timex watch. For most of us, though, the saga of Mugsy naturally will lead the mind to dwell on George Bush. Has he, too, been buried prematurely? Will he emerge in November, with dirty nose and wagging tail, the keys to the White House dangling from his teeth?
On the principle that you can judge a man by the enemies he makes, I am impressed by the hatred of many conservatives for President Bush. They think him a betrayer of Reaganism. I think President Reagan played credit-card politics and Mr. Bush is stuck with the bills. He didn't betray Mr. Reagan: Mr. Reagan betrayed him. Nevertheless, if the bug-eyed right-wing zealots have abandoned the Republican incumbent, maybe there's some merit in him. At any rate, it's a useful exercise to think of a case for re-electing George Bush.
Hmmm. . . .
Well, he did an excellent job superintending the reunification of Germany. I think we can all agree about that. Anything else?
[Break for lunch.]
OK, how about this?
Neither presidential candidate is addressing seriously the greatest threat to this country's future, which is the swelling national debt. Bill Clinton's economic program promises a deficit of $141 billion after four years. President Bush's most recent budget promises $188 billion after five. Neither plan is especially honest in its calculations. Both gentlemen canoodle with Ms. Rosy Scenario. Both avoid asking the great middle class to take a hit, either in taxes or in benefits, though both must know that no real solution is possible without that.
Mr. Clinton's plan is better, for various reasons. But if you think that both candidates are basically ducking the most important challenge facing the next president, you must ask yourself: Which of the two is more likely, once elected, to deal with it anyway? A strong case can be made: That man is George Bush.
A President Clinton will have to be thinking about re-election. We can see at the moment what a devastating effect this can have on an incumbent's integrity and political courage. A re-elected President Bush, by contrast, will be a lame duck. His career will be over. A man who's been seeking public office his whole life without ever knowing what for will have to face up to that question at last.
Maybe he'll come down with a case of History. Maybe, after decades of sucking up to anyone in his path and flitting from one principle to the next, he'll feel some hitherto undiscovered reservoir of flinty WASP integrity come gushing forth from deep within his gene pool. Maybe he'll think, "Golly, I can't leave the country in this mess."
President Reagan hoarded his political popularity chips until the end, even though he had no use for them after 1984. He could have done things in his second term that would have made President Bush's burden a lot lighter. If Mr. Bush wins re-election, maybe he will spend his chips for this successor's sake. After all, you can't take them with you.
George Bush is a proven betrayer of campaign promises. In fact, that is what his presidency his best known for by the electorate (though I doubt that one voter in a thousand could tell you what taxes Mr. Bush actually raised in 1990). He did it before. Maybe he'll do it again.
There's also the partisan Democratic case for a Bush victory. As a Democrat, hoping for Governor Clinton to win, one can't shake the thought, "Uh oh, what if he does win? What then?" Then the Democrats will be stuck with the deficit hot potato and the Republicans can sit back and laugh. Mr. Clinton will inherit the problem with no mandate to do anything serious about it. And, unlike Mr. Bush, he won't have the convenient excuse of a Congress controlled by the opposition party.
In 1988 several leading Democrats declined to run for president on the theory that 1989-1993, with the due bills from Reaganism coming in, might be a good four years to be out of office. Let the Republicans clean up their own mess. But since Mr. Bush has manifestly failed to clean up the mess, 1993-1997 might also be a good time to be out of office.
If Mr. Bush were to use his second term to deal honestly with the deficit mess, this might be so unpopular that the Republican candidate would surely lose in 1996. A Democrat could then be elected and govern without this terrible albatross. If, instead, Mr. Bush allowed the problem to fester for four more years, it might be possible for a Democrat to do what Ross Perot didn't dare this time: run and win by asking for a mandate to do the right things.
So maybe, for the good of the country and even for the good of the Democratic Party, it would be better if George Bush defeats Bill Clinton this fall.
[Break for cocktails.]
TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.