Clinton's tentative entry will enliven a dull Demo race On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

August 20, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington -- IN THE LAND of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Thus, Gov. Bill Clinton's announcement that he has formed a committee to explore the possibility of running for president next year is a shot in the arm for the Democratic Party.

This doesn't suggest that Clinton may not prove to be a formidable force in 1992 national politics. He is an intelligent, articulate and attractive politician whom insiders have considered apotentially serious player for years. But it is equally true that in another season the five-term governor of Arkansas would not be, as he is, automatically assigned a role as one of the leading Democratic hopes against President Bush next year.

Clinton's decision, tentative though it may be, is particularlywelcome to Democrats buffeted in the past month by the decisions of two prominent party figures, House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt and Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV, to pass up 1992 in favor of 1996 -- decisions that reinforced the picture of the Democratic Party cowering in fear of Bush.

Now the party has the prospect of at least two candidates with conventionally acceptable credentials, Clinton and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa. The only declared candidate is Paul Tsongas, a former one-term senator from Massachusetts who has not yet established his credibility as a genuine possibility despite the esteem in which he is held by those who know him.

Clinton, just turning 45, probably deserves more than being damned with faint praise. He has been a vigorous and innovative governor since his first election in 1978 at the age of 32. He has a record on issues -- education in particular -- on which Bush is most vulnerable. And he has shown himself to be a forceful political leader as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council.

Clinton also has shown himself to be a politician capable of growing and learning. Two years after that first election he was upset by a Republican, Frank White, when Arkansas voters got the idea he had gone uptown on them and become too big for his britches. Two years later he returned a chastened and determined candidate and turned out White. Similarly, when he was ridiculed for the length of the nominating speech he delivered for Michael S. Dukakis in 1988, Clinton confronted the issue with self-deprecating humor that quickly neutralized it -- and, perhaps more to the point, he then demonstrated in a series of appearances as the leader of the DLC that he was capable of delivering excellent speeches.

The central question about Clinton is whether his candidacy will cause a polarization within his party with him as the voice of the moderately conservative DLC and someone else, either Harkin or Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, as the candidate of the liberal activists who have so dominated the nominating process in the past.

In fact, those who know him have never thought of Clinton as a conservative. He believes the party needs to put more emphasis on identifying itself with the middle class on such issues as education, health and child care and less emphasis on ideological squabbling over doctrine. But his record in Arkansas has been consistently progressive, and he has always has had strong support among black voters there.

In the Democratic Party, nonetheless, there is still a tendency to deal in perceptions and an absolute mania for splitting hairs. In Clinton's case, that means his role as chairman of the DLC may be moreof a burden than an asset outside the south.

Clinton's prospects also will depend on how the field shakes down in the end. Competing against Tom Harkin is one thing, running against Mario Cuomo quite another, particularly in light of the fact Clinton and Cuomo already have taken a few long-range shots at one another. And there is still a strong possibility there may be another southern moderate, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, in the Democratic mix.

But Bill Clinton has a tough streak that doesn't always reveal itself quickly, so it is unlikely he will be intimidated by his opposition. He has already begun appearing before liberal groups to show them he doesn't wear horns, and the New Hampshire primary is still six months down the road.

For the moment, however, it is probably enough that the Democrats can enjoy the news that there is at least one Democrat with a future at risk who may be willing to chance it in 1992.

Clinton's tentative entry will enliven a dull Demo race

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