The Australian

By Tom Switzer 

TWENTY years ago, as euphoria swept over the US in the wake of the Gulf War, many Democratic partisans conceded that president George H. W. Bush was invincible and that his presidential rivals were faring no better than Saddam Hussein.

"No serious Democrat has yet volunteered for the likely suicide mission of running against George Bush," wrote the US News & World Report. "Many [Democratic] rank and filers privately concede 1992 might already be hopeless. For them, the real campaign is 1996."

The liberal New Republic cover was headlined "The Democratic Coma" with a subheading "The diagnoses and cures for a very sick party".

The conservative National Review enthused "Democratic presidential hopefuls sustained a kill rate as high as the Iraqi air force" and even contemplated the possibility that Republicans could win congress for the first time in 40 years.

Time magazine published a cartoon of war hero Bush in front of several likely Democratic candidates, with the caption: "And the elite Democratic Guard is completely immobilised."

Bush's approval rating was so high - at about 90 per cent - that London bookmaker Ladbrokes made him the red-hot $1.25 favourite for re-election.

The Democratic presidential line-up was so weak that even George McGovern, who lost one of the biggest US election landslides to Richard Nixon 20 years earlier, was seriously considering another run.

Yet within 18 months, George Bush lost convincingly to a little-known, philandering, dope-smoking, draft-dodging governor of a small, poor, backwater southern state.

Bear all this in mind when you hear today's commentators who predict that the killing of Osama bin Laden guarantees Barack Obama's re-election next year.

Long-time television reporter Barbara Walters spoke for many journalists in writing off the Republican challengers when she recently said: "I would hate now to be a Republican candidate thinking of running."

Last week's Republican presidential debate has been dismissed as something akin to that famous bar scene from Star Wars, but the primary line-up is bound to change and improve during the northern summer. Several heavyweight political figures governors Mitch Daniels (Indiana), Mitt Romney (Massachusetts) and Jon Huntsman (Utah) are more than likely to enter the fray.

Besides, at this stage of the 1992 electoral cycle, the top Democrats - Mario Cuomo, Douglas Wilder, Richard Gephardt - were so pessimistic about their prospects that they pulled out of running in their party's primaries. Bill Clinton's name was rarely mentioned.

Obama has benefited in a six-to-11 point bounce in the polls since the killing of bin Laden. He has also neutralised Republican attacks that he is a wimp on national security issues.

Still, it's the economy, not foreign policy, that will primarily determine the outcome of next year's election. In 1992, the president's opponent eventually won by "focusing like a laser" on the economy. (Remember "It's the economy, stupid"?) Today, the omens do not look good for the incumbent.

Unemployment is at 9 per cent. The national debt is at a record-high $14 trillion. Home foreclosures continue to swell. Gas and grocery prices are skyrocketing. And growth remains sluggish, so much so that The Wall Street Journal calls it "the new lacklustre".

None of this means Obama won't get re-elected next year. It's just that voters do have short memories, especially when they are hurting in the hip pocket. Just ask George H. W. Bush.

Tom Switzer is a research associate at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and editor of Spectator Australia