WASHINGTON -- The election in Israel and the one impending in Russia are reminders of the way any president of the United States can be hostage to events beyond his control while running for re-election.
In most cases, the best he can get is the worst of it.
There is, of course, no direct connection between either of these elections abroad and the campaign here. Voters are not going to either blame or credit President Clinton for the results in Israel and Russia; there are too many other things closer to home for them to worry about.
The heat in Bosnia
A president can suffer, of course, if things turn sour in a situation directly involving Americans. Mr. Clinton, for example, could take a great deal of heat if there were substantial American casualties in Bosnia. No one has forgotten how the hostage situation in Iran in 1980 crystallized all the doubts about the strength of then President Jimmy Carter and contributed heavily, perhaps decisively, to his defeat at the hands of Republican Ronald Reagan.
Unhappily for presidents, they usually get no corresponding credit for foreign-policy successes. In 1978, for instance, Mr. Carter made a historic breakthrough in the Middle East by brokering the then astonishing peace agreement signed by Menachem Begin of Israel and Anwar Sadat of Egypt at the Camp David summit. But President Carter's approval rating rose only a single percentage point in a Gallup Poll taken a few days after that success.
Even if a president gets some credit, it can be short-lived. President Bush's approval rating soared to a dizzying 90 percent in the immediate aftermath of the Persian Gulf War early in 1991. His success was so dramatic, in fact, that the most obvious and potentially strongest Democratic opponents for 1992 opted to sit out the campaign and leave it to people like an obscure governor of Arkansas.
By the early fall of 1991 those approval ratings for Mr. Bush had nosedived and by January of 1992 he was obviously vulnerable in his campaign for re-election. Voters have short memories, and their question is always the oldest in American politics: "What have you done for me lately?"
Benefit and blame
So President Clinton can expect little if any political benefit from his apparent foreign-policy triumphs in Haiti and Bosnia. And although he may not be blamed for problems that develop in either Israel or Russia as a result of the elections this spring, the president may well find himself being forced to devote important time and resources to dealing with those problems between now and November 5.
The political rules of thumb on foreign policy are quite simple. The first is that voters must achieve some comfort level with a president, so that they can be confident that he can deal effectively with foreign powers. President Clinton clearly has managed that in his first term.
The second is that voters really care only about something that may affect them directly -- the most obvious being the possibility of a war.
Unsurprisingly, voters appear far less concerned about foreign-policy and national-security questions since the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade ago. There is no longer much reason to worry about whose finger is on the nuclear button.
The greatest political threat to President Clinton in the foreign-policy area these days is the possibility of a Communist victory in the elections in Russia. If that happened, we could expect the Far Right to send up an outcry about how the commie threat has always continued and that Mr. Clinton has been a typical dovish Democratic dupe. Senator Dole could be expected to make the case that his history in the military gives him qualifications on national-security issues superior to those of a president who dodged the draft in the Vietnam War.
As a practical matter, that is a strategy that probably wouldn't work, if only because most Americans have so little interest these days in anything that happens abroad.
But President Clinton still could find himself preoccupied with awkward foreign-policy questions at just the time he wants to concentrate on the economy, education, crime and the environment.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 6/03/96