How do you figure it? The economy is ticking along at a rate and with a consistency that leaves Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan befuddled. The stock market is flourishing, apparently immune to "corrections" that, at an earlier time, might have had people jumping off tall buildings (or at least out of the market). Consumers, the polls keep telling us, are confident. America, after Kosovo, is at peace. Pundits and professional doomsdayers aside, nobody even seems that worried about the Y2K bug.
Shouldn't the administration that brought us all these wonders be almost invincible for reelection? President Clinton, of course, already has been elected the two times the Constitution allows, but shouldn't the good feeling spill over onto Vice President Al Gore, who wants to succeed Clinton?
Gore, after all, pretty much believes what Clinton believes. He's not about to go screwing with the economy or any of the other things that we count when we consider our good fortune. And on top of everything, he's pretty much scandal-free. He should, one might think, be comfortably ahead of his competitors in the polls.
Instead, the largely untested George W. Bush is. What's the deal?
Well, maybe it's a repeat of eight years ago. The problem the Democrats had at that time was that George W.'s dad, President George Herbert Walker Bush, seemed such a shoo-in for reelection, nobody wanted to run against him. Gore, Gephardt, even Jesse Jackson, found better things to do than to offer themselves up as sacrificial lambs in a lost cause.
And it did look formidable. The U.S. economy wasn't in the best shape, of course, but in foreign policy terms the Bush administration was on top of the world. The Berlin Wall had been leveled. The East-West struggle that had dominated our political thinking for more than a generation was over -- and we'd won; the Soviet Union of our military nightmares had collapsed.
Then on top of everything else, Bush sets his jaw, goes in after the opportunistic Saddam Hussein and routs that so-called strongman and his vaunted Republican Guard. What a run-up to a reelection campaign!
That's why so many better-known Democrats decided to sit that election out, leaving an opening for a Southern governor named Bill Clinton. Clinton, of course, beat the luckless Bush in the general election.
It's far too early to predict a similar victory for Bush's son. But I think there are similarities in the political plight of President Bush then and Vice President Gore now, and the main similarity is this:
When the people are dissatisfied with an important aspect of their political or economic lives, they tend to blame the incumbent. When they are pleased about that aspect, they stop worrying about it, in effect taking it off the electoral table.
President Bush did such a terrific job on the international front (or at least got credit for doing a terrific job) that the voters stopped worrying about foreign affairs, Bush's strength, and turned their attention to the domestic scene, his glaring weakness.
The economy over which Clinton is presiding, and for whose success the Clinton-Gore administration justifiably can claim credit, may similarly be a non-issue this time, snatching away from Gore his sure-fire strength and focusing attention on his most talked-about shortcoming: his wooden personality.
That might not be such an awful thing for Gore if his challenger were the elder Bush, whose picture is not in most dictionaries next to the word "dazzling." But George W. is a different animal: personable, good-looking, smooth-talking and -- you hear it from just about anybody who's seen him up close -- charming.
That's enough to make you a front-runner? Maybe. I've been asking people why they think Bush is ahead of Gore in the polls, and their answer may be fairly summarized by the response of a politically smart colleague: "He's cute, bland, conservative, but not out-of-control reactionary."
That can be a huge head start when most of the voters are reasonably happy and don't really want the government to do an awful lot. It also could be a major hazard if, for some unforeseeable reason, the happiness fades and the people look again to Washington to make things better.
In such an event, George W. had better have a bit more than a nice face and an easy manner.