All around the world, the leaders who dominated the '80s are having a hard time making the transition to a new decade. The impatience with status-quo politics is breaking down the barriers to change from Moscow and Warsaw to London and points west. It would be foolish to suppose that the United States will be immune for long from this worldwide trend.
The most dramatic example of this phenomenon is the sudden downfall of Margaret Thatcher. In her 12th year as Britain's prime minister, with her party enjoying a 100-seat majority in the House of Commons and no need to call an election for another 20 months, she was suddenly forced to resign as a result of a rebellion in Tory ranks whose causes even those who voted her out of office cannot clearly describe.
Surely it was not any diminution in her leadership powers. Anyone who saw the C-SPAN coverage of her final appearance on the front bench knows what a formidable figure she is. As a supporter shouted, she "mopped the floor" of the House of Commons with her Labor opposition. But even Thatcher was not able to resist the sense that time had run out on her and that the ideas on which she had governed with great success had lost their relevance and much of their political force in the altered circumstances of the '90s.
Much the same thing is happening to Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader whose remarkable qualities Thatcher was the first Western statesman to recognize and praise. Gorbachev continues to occupy a prominent place on the world stage and to issue sweeping decrees at home. But as a shrewd visitor from Moscow told me in a conversation last week: "The more formal powers he accumulates, the less real authority he has. The more his legitimacy derives from the West, the less it will be recognized by those he seeks to rule at home."
In one sense, Thatcher and Gorbachev have confronted the same problem. She was undone by Tory fears she would lose the next election. He is crippled by his reluctance to submit himself and his government to the test of a direct election.
Parallels can be found for both dilemmas in other countries. Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, another personal favorite of the last two American presidents, holds deeply diminished authority because of his low standing in the polls. As Gorbachev has failed to check the centrifugal forces of nationalism in the separatist Soviet republics, Mulroney has failed to channel or checkmate the tendency of the Canadian provinces to go their individual ways. And the cost to his standing has been calamitous.
This week, Lech Walesa's name can be added to the list of '80s heroes for whom the new decade provides an uncomfortable setting. Yes, Walesa led five other candidates in the first free election for the Polish presidency. But who would have supposed that the hero of Solidarity would have failed to win a majority and be forced into a runoff against a previously unknown emigre businessman?
The reason for this embarrassment was that Walesa, instead of appearing to be the unifying national figure he had been in the past, looked pushy, vindictive and at times positively nasty, as he quarreled with his prote'ge'-turned-rival, Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, and even appeared to tolerate antisemitic sloganeering at his rallies.
The common factor that has derailed the former heroes in all four countries is economic frustration. Britain, after recovering handsomely under Thatcher's leadership and scoring significant economic gains during most of the '80s, has slumped back into a high-inflation/low-growth pattern.
Soviet citizens are waging a daily battle for survival as the breakdown of the supply and delivery system causes increasing shortages of food and other necessities. Canada's economy has been in the doldrums for years and not even Mulroney's free-trade agreement with the United States has served to spark its recovery. And Poland is only partway through a cold-turkey transition to a market economy and is paying the price in higher unemployment and reduced living standards for many.
Could George Bush be next? He certainly does not face the daunting problems that did in Thatcher and that threaten Gorbachev, Mulroney and, soon, Walesa. By contrast to their headaches, the U.S. budget deficit and the threat of recession look mild.
But politics is more than economics. It also tests leaders' abilities to meet the needs of their times. As those needs change, the tendency will be for people to change leaders.
The American people now understand that George Bush is focused on foreign policy and national security questions, while the voters' minds are preoccupied with what they see as urgent problems demanding attention here at home. In that fundamental sense, Bush is out of sync with his times.
He may be spared by the Democrats' persistent inability to offer the nation a plausible alternative. But if they break their pattern of nominating weak candidates, Bush will be lucky to avoid the worldwide trend.