Win or lose the nomination, Sen. Robert Kerrey of Nebraska and Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas set a Democratic theme this week for the 1992 effort to oust George Bush from the White House.
"I want to lead America's fearless, restless voyage of generational progress," Mr. Kerrey said. Announcing his own campaign for president, Mr. Clinton said: "I refuse to be part of a generation that celebrates the death of communism abroad with the loss of the American dream at home. I refuse to stand by and let our children become part of the first generation to do worse than their parents."
This is a good tactic. Mr. Kerrey at 48 and Mr. Clinton at 45 are a full generation removed from President Bush, who is 67. They can speak to younger voters in their own language, out of shared concerns. Voters in the 30- and 40-something generation have become reliable Republicans in recent elections. Democrats cannot win the presidency without attracting them back into the party.
Messrs. Kerrey and Clinton both begin their campaigns with rhetoric aimed at these voters, especially those in the middle class. Senator Kerrey said, for example, "[Republicans] railed against taxes, but then raised them on the middle class." Governor Clinton said, "Middle class people are spending more hours on the job, spending less time with their children, bringing home a smaller paycheck."
Both candidates stress what may become the issue of the campaign -- the need to revamp the health care system which they both say is too expensive for average families.
Generational change and help for the middle class are themes that lack the passion of the populist rhetoric of Sen. Tom Harkin and Jesse Jackson. But the two men have the potential to win back voters that the Democrats will need to compete with President Bush in 1992 and with subsequent Republican presidential candidates.
Messrs. Kerrey and Clinton are attractive candidates who are respected as vote-getters. Senator Kerrey is a Congressional Medal of Honor winner. He has an aura of glamour that is helpful in today's politics. Governor Clinton has a proven record of greatly improving public education in his state.
Both men also have liabilities, especially Senator Kerrey. He is for increased farm price supports, opposed the gulf war effort and has advocated a national payroll tax and a national sales tax. Mr. Clinton raised taxes several times as governor. Whether new federal taxes are needed or not, advocating them can destroy a presidential candidacy.