Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Bush swims against a postwar current

George Bush has his campaign troubles: a sick economy, a broken tax pledge, an electorate tired of his face. But there is a deeper current that he is fighting. Forget the candidates' tactics, character, or even issues. Bush's great nemesis is the historical context of this campaign: He is a wartime leader and this is a postwar election.

It is a context easily overlooked because the Cold War lacked the drama and the immediacy of the two world wars. But the Cold War was as titanic a struggle as its predecessors, indeed lasting far longer and exerting greater strain on America's psychic and material resources. Its abrupt and astonishing end has left us subject to two classic postwar effects.

The first is demobilization. Today, with a technological and mechanized military, demobilization means unemployed defense workers rather than masses of soldiers coming back on troop ships. The consequences are visible from the troubled shipyards of Groton, Conn., to the aerospace plants of Southern California where, for example, Hughes Aircraft just fired 13,000 workers.

But the postwar effect is more than economic. It is psychological too. Postwar means not just demobilization, but a paradoxical demoralization. Victory brings with it an odd kind of postpartum malaise, an "Is that all there is?" feeling, a disillusionment that must follow expectations raised so high during war. It is not just that the great enterprise that elevated the nation is no more, but that the fantastic promise of the postwar age, that for which so much was sacrificed, has not been fulfilled. All that for this? For the status quo?

Parties and presidents that have run for re-election in such circumstances have not fared well. After both world wars, the first postwar election was a disaster for the incumbent party. In 1920, the Democrats, who had led the United States into and out of World War I, were crushed 2-1 in both the presidential and congressional elections.

In the 1946 elections, the Democrats were similarly humbled. Their thanks for leading America all the way to Berlin was to be stripped of control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1928.

George Bush, too, for all his non-postwar problems (not the least of which is the exhaustion of conservatism after 12 years in power), is carrying the special disabilities of a postwar leader. In postwar elections the people are willing to take a chance on a relative unknown. Warren G. Harding, for example. Or a young governor from Arkansas. Even if the people choose wrong, they know it is not at the risk of being overrun by the Nazis or nuked by the Soviets.

In World War II, Britain trusted Winston Churchill to stand up to Hitler. Within 11 weeks of victory, however, Churchill was out on his ear.

The end of the Great Danger has a final effect. It not only elevates the out party's perennial election issue ("change"), it also eliminates the out party's perennial weakness _ defense. For practically a generation, the Democrats' inability to produce candidates that were credible commanders in chief helped shut them out of national power.

In the strange alchemy of postwar elections, however, the ability to deal with the world can turn into a liability. Democrats under Woodrow Wilson got as little credit for winning World War I as the Republicans under Reagan and Bush get for having ended the Cold War. Instead, the Republicans in 1920, harped on Wilson's preoccupation with foreign policy _ the League of Nations _ at a time of postwar economic hardship. "To people concerned with such daily problems as employment and the cost of food," writes historian Paul Kleppner, "Wilson's single-minded preoccupation with the League of Nations .


. must have seemed to be preventing the government from addressing the problems that impinged upon the daily lives of most citizens." Sound familiar?

Bush is not helpless in the face of these historical trends. But he has not come close to figuring out how to circumvent them. The last Cold War president promises to turn inward and become a great postwar president. The people don't believe it. They rarely do.

Washington Post Writers Group