• U.S.

It’s Clinton’s to Lose

13 minute read
Michael Kramer

THERE OUGHT TO BE SOMEthing uplifting about a free nation of more than 250 million people choosing their leader, and if the rest of the 1992 campaign had matched the face-off in St. Louis, Missouri, the spectacle would indeed have been inspirational. Although none of the candidates said anything particularly new or revealing (aside from George Bush’s promise, if re-elected, to make former Secretary of State James Baker a domestic-policy czar), the debate transcended the flawed campaign; it was more possible than ever before to get a sense of the contenders, a feel for what they believe, and insights into their underlying personalities.

As for its impact on the campaign, the first debate will probably reinforce rather than alter voters’ impressions. Ross Perot’s strong performance will change some minds. All but the most partisan were surely left to wonder what might have been had Perot stayed the course. Bush’s continuing attack on Bill Clinton’s character and patriotism may eventually drive up negative ratings for the Democrat, but a betting person would have to say that the leader going into the debates will be the leader coming out — and that he will still lead on Nov. 3.

Each candidate seemed to have a mental checklist of points he was determined to make, no matter the question or his rivals’ response; each understood that many Americans would be paying attention for the first time, and that oldies for some would be goodies for most. The President, who often uses English as if it were his second language, was coherent, but almost listless. Rather than firmly sketch his plans for a second term, Bush made a plea for four more years that was almost plaintive. In 1988 Barbara Bush said, “I can’t explain it, but yes, the camera shrinks him and makes him look small.”

Last Sunday the President’s own halting performance reinforced that impression. Bush was understandably best when dealing with foreign policy, but his repeated insistence that “it’s not all that gloomy; we’re the United States” seemed wildly out of touch with the pain so many Americans feel, and the fear of so many others that they will experience similar hardship. The cartoonist Herblock once drew Bush on the sidelines of the Central American wars waving a banner that said GO CONTRAS! That the President felt it necessary to play cheerleader in St. Louis is likely attributable to his having run up against two unfortunate requirements: the need to avoid being too negative and the need to avoid appearing too desperate. In trying to do both, he seemed passive, too unemotional and far too casual, which might be fine if the nation were looking to continue the status quo, but it is not.

As with John Kennedy (whom he shamelessly imitated by saying “We can do better and we must”), the lasting impression of Clinton was his vigorous, confident demeanor and his often bemused attitude toward Bush. He struck back when the President again attacked his patriotism, cleverly invoking Bush’s father’s famous castigation of Joseph McCarthy. Clinton, in an attempt to humanize himself, invoked almost every member of his family, both living and dead — his recovering drug-addict brother who “is alive today because of the criminal-justice system”; his widowed mother, a paragon of family values even as a single parent; his “heart-of-gold” grandfather, who taught him to hate segregation; his daughter, just for being alive; and his wife because it was their 17th anniversary. (Ronald Reagan knew how to do schmaltz; no one else should ever try.)

Clinton was best on what he is best about — policy. As usual, he knew more about more issues than anyone present. Bush could have at least scored for humor if he had repeated his stump line about Clinton having more programs than there are problems. His answers were forthright and comprehensive, and almost miraculously, he avoided making long lists in all but a few answers. On the stump Clinton can appear too smart; indeed, at times he is almost smart- alecky, like the kid who raises his hand to remind the teacher that he forgot to assign homework over Christmas. There was none of that in St. Louis, just an appropriate sense of urgency coupled with rhetorical certitude, the two combining to leave the impression that Clinton knows where he would take the nation if he gets the chance.

There will be two more debates and plenty more name calling, attack advertising and scare stories. When it gets rough, as it will, it will be easy to forget that the nation is poised to change direction. The end of Reaganism seems at hand. George Bush, the vestigial Ronald Reagan who has called his presidency a “stewardship,” is suffering the cancer of politics, the high negatives; his job-approval rating is lower than Jimmy Carter’s in October 1980.

For a dozen years, the nation’s life has been dominated by a philosophy that proposes to limit government, encourage the creation of private wealth and confront enemies with a huge arsenal and a hair-trigger willingness to fight. The record is mixed. The Reagan-Bush policies hastened the collapse of communism and the end of the cold war. But at home only the rich have truly prospered. The middle class is hurting, the poor are poorer, inequality has grown and the country’s ability to compete has been hindered by an undistinguished education system and widespread inattention to the problems of those caught in the backwash of the West’s victory over the “evil empire.”

So the nation seems ready for change, although fear of it — and of the untested newcomer who would lead it — still gives some hope to Bush. A majority may yet decide, in Reagan’s phrase, that America’s future is too important “to be trusted to a blind date.” Enough may agree again with what Bush said four years ago: “Maybe there is an old-shoe familiarity. People will give me credit because, see, I’ve been through the mill.”

Which is exactly what Bush is trying to put Clinton through right now; the Republicans, who have owned the White House, with the exception of the Carter hiatus, since 1968, are not inclined to yield easily. As the President again demonstrated Sunday night, no punch is being pulled. Bush has labeled this year’s campaign the “nastiest” he has ever seen, but it is he who borrowed a tactic from the early career of Richard Nixon to imply that Clinton, as a student, was tainted by communism.

No wonder so many voters say they are soured, numbed and disaffected by the long procession of public statements, charges and countercharges, newspaper photographs and television film of seemingly nonstop campaigners at endless rallies. A disenchantment bordering on bitterness consumes the public attitude toward the whole punishing business.

How did the campaign get to this point, and what might the homestretch offer?

A year ago, Bush was headed for a coronation. Serious Democrats bowed out; better to wait till the Constitution precluded the President from seeking a third term. Believing that anything could happen and hoping that something would, the opposition’s second string filled the void.

At the beginning, no one had the upper hand, and each reasoned that a credible loss was the ticket to a more realistic chance next time. Clinton, the eventual winner, was hobbled by character flaws of his own making, and fumbled responses to even the easiest inquiries when his foibles were exposed. Through it all he persevered, his resilience and toughness becoming antidotes to the attacks on his character. A lifetime in politics equipped him with tactical savvy and strategic good sense. Like other Southern populists before him, Clinton seemed instinctively to know how to put the hay down where the goats were. In the end, however, only the flatness of the field around him rescued his tottering effort, and his prospects against Bush seemed dim. But events beyond Clinton’s control were already chipping away at the President’s invincibility.

Foremost among the President’s troubles was, and is, the economy. Accompanying the economic recession is a widespread — and still widening — psychological depression. People for whom unemployment was always someone else’s problem have been affected. The jobless numbers themselves are not particularly outsize, but the fear is palpable: in many polls, fully 50% of respondents fear that they will lose their jobs in the next 12 months, and upward of 65% of Americans view the nation as on the “wrong track.”

But Bush insisted that recovery was just around the corner, and at every turn seemed oblivious to the hardship so many experienced. The President reminded one of another patrician, Nelson Rockefeller, who in 1968 began an analysis of the economy with the words, “Take the average guy who earns $100,000 a year.” Early on, Bush telegraphed his insensitivity with a stance that still rankles — a lack of action, actually, that many recall when pressed to explain their having strayed from the President’s camp. With only the mildest expression of concern for those he would harm, Bush cavalierly refused to extend unemployment benefits beyond their normal 26-week run. The national outcry forced him to relent, but to many of those who elected him — and especially to the Republican-leaning Democrats without whom he would / have lost — the President’s initial action was incomprehensible.

If the Gulf War were ever a serious counterweight to the anger so many expressed, its ability to boost Bush’s standing evaporated long ago. In fact, the President’s masterly handling of that conflict seems to have backfired. The war, many say, proved the President’s competence — when he focuses. Ergo the nation’s problems might be less acute if Bush had only applied himself at home as he had abroad. Which is why Al Gore’s audiences respond most heartily when the Democratic vice-presidential nominee says four more years of Bush- Quayle seems “more like a threat than a promise.”

What to do when the polling numbers are bordered in black? In 1988, before Bush had a White House record to defend, House Republican whip Newt Gingrich explained the President’s predicament simply: “It’s hard to elect George Bush in an election that focuses primarily on George Bush.” So the President’s campaign is characterized by a wee bit of positive presentation, a whole lot of Santa Claus as Bush spreads federal largesse around key states, and a prayer that Perot will level the playing field by tarring both candidates’ economic plans as pain-free nonsense. But following the President’s own instructions (“We’re going after this guy”), the Republicans are engaged mostly in tearing down Clinton’s character. The presentation is seamless. The stump speeches follow the ads (for which the G.O.P. has about $15 million more on hand than the Democrats for a final blitz). St. Louis was merely another riff on a message that never varies: You can’t trust Clinton personally, and you can’t trust him not to raise taxes; times may be tough, but they could be worse. The key, Jim Baker has said, is “repetition, repetition, repetition.”

THE FIRST LESSON CLINTON learned from Michael Dukakis’ 1988 defeat is that any charge left unchallenged is presumed true. Counterpunching is the hallmark of this year’s Democratic campaign — but so is Clinton’s tendency to ape Bush’s tactics with inaccurate swipes at the President’s record and proposals. While the dirt prize goes to Bush, Clinton has trolled in the gutter long enough to fear for his soul too.

But periodically — and from Clinton with some regularity — there is enough of a debate about future directions to perceive two very different governing philosophies. It simply is not true, as even many academics contend, that the candidates differ only at the margins. From Bush it is more of the same, a laissez-faire embrace of free markets, a scarcely subtle survival-of-the- fittest signal. The Republicans, it is clear, see nothing wrong with extending the Me decade indefinitely; no matter that Reagan’s trickle-down nostrums, which were supposed to lift all boats, have so far lifted only yachts.

Neither Bush nor Clinton has fully accounted for the cost of their competing agendas, and there are waffles and flip-flops on both sides. But the core of Clinton’s economic vision is distinguishable from the President’s and is perhaps best described as a call for a We decade; not the old I-am-my- brother’s-keeper brand of traditional Democratic liberalism, but an acknowledgment that the interconnectedness of global economics requires that many prosper, or no one will.

As spun out at every opportunity, whether in shorthand in St. Louis or in some greater detail on the stump, the differences between the candidates’ economic views could not be greater. The two candidates’ views regarding the recently negotiated North American Free Trade Agreement illustrate that gap. Both support NAFTA as vital for the nation’s economic future, but Bush clearly believes that merely establishing a new North American trade zone is sufficient to spur economic growth. In the President’s mind, free trade is an end in itself; once established, market forces will determine winners and losers on the merits. Clinton sees NAFTA’s benefits as more elusive; to ensure that they are reaped, he favors companion legislation requiring a form of “industrial policy” that would create a partnership of government, business and labor to provide, among other things, a coordinated effort of worker retraining.

So beneath the fog, there is a real debate, as St. Louis somewhat unexpectedly revealed. In the end, however, the vote for the presidency is a complicated, subtle act. “People vote for President by feel,” says Robert Teeter, the President’s campaign chairman. “There are hundreds, maybe thousands of subconscious factors that create a general perception of a presidential candidate.” Unfortunately for Bush, many of those subconscious factors are working against him. Many things the President has said and done over the years appear to have settled negatively in the electorate’s brain, an accumulation of winces ready to cause a mass defection from his candidacy.

In the days remaining before the election, Bush’s assaults will continue and escalate. It is possible he can still destroy Clinton. If that is the result, he can be assured of a terminally hostile Democratic Congress through his second term. Moreover, he will have no positive mandate from the voters and will have to contend with a bitter battle within his own party over his successor in 1996. As he wandered over the line of decency last week in his red-baiting attacks, a troubling question arose: If Bush wins a second term by these destructive tactics, will he have destroyed his presidency in order to save it?

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