Washington -- THE RAP against all the declared Democratic presidential candidates is that while they may be able to make hay against President Bush on domestic issues, none of them has the credentials to challenge him on foreign policy, where he has made a distinct mark on the public's consciousness as a global whirling dervish.
It is the same concern that was widely expressed 32 years ago when Sen. John F. Kennedy challenged another political globe-trotter with a reputation as a foreign-policy expert, Vice President Richard M. Nixon. Kennedy, benefiting from low expectations about his knowledge of foreign affairs, demonstrated in a televised foreign-policy debate with Nixon that he was in Nixon's league, silencing talk of a severe foreign-policy gap between the two men.
That bit of history came to mind Thursday as Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas delivered a tour de force speech at his alma mater, the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, that makes clear he does not intend to concede the area of foreign policy to Bush, while joining in the general Democratic theme that American needs at home demand first priority.
Clinton anchored his speech on the premise that with the end of the Cold War, global economic confrontation has replaced the old military standoff. He sharply criticized President Bush for failing to meet the challenges offered by the breakup of the Soviet Union as well as the emergence of Japan as the coming world economic power.
He called for more than the $500 million approved by Congress "to help the people of the former Soviet empire demilitarize their societies" by destroying nuclear weapons, and for more food and medical aid to the Soviet republics to enable them "to survive their first winter of freedom in 74 years."
Clinton painted Bush as a president excessively devoted to personal relationships with other world leaders, with China's repressive rulers as well with as the allies of the Persian Gulf war. And he charged that, "Even as the American Dream is inspiring people around the world, America is on the sidelines, a military giant crippled by economic weakness and an uncertain vision."
He urged deeper cuts in U.S. forces abroad than planned by the Bush administration and in overall defense spending -- 33 percent by 1997 compared to 21 percent in the administration's plans "based on the assumption, now obsolete, that the Soviet Union would remain intact." He called for consideration of a U.N. rapid deployment force to replace the United States as the world's traffic cop, and creation of a "Democracy Corps" reminiscent of JFK's Peace Corps, dispatching "thousands of talented American volunteers to countries that need their legal, financial and political expertise."
Clinton also called for tougher American trade policies toward Japan and European trading partners, warning that, "If they won't play by the rules of an open trading system, then we will play by theirs." And repeatedly he argued that foreign policy and domestic policy must be intertwined in the new post-Cold War era.
"To lead abroad," Clinton said, "a president of the United States must first lead at home . . . . Today we need a president, a public and a policy that are not caught up in the wars of the past -- not World War II, not Vietnam, not the Cold War." In the strongest applause line in the speech, reminding his audience of another gap -- his age of 45 compared to Bush's 67 -- he added: "What we need to elect in 1992 is not the last president of the 20th century, but the first president of the 21st century."
One speech does not, to be sure, make a foreign-policy expert. But at a time other Democratic candidates have been giving Bush a relatively wide berth in the field and concentrating on what they charge is neglect of domestic needs, Clinton at Georgetown made a strong beginning toward diminishing the criticism that as a young governor he would be no match for George Bush beyond the water's edge.
In the early competition among the Democratic hopefuls centering on domestic issues, Clinton has already received high marks for presenting the most comprehensive and detailed prescriptions for education reform and having the surest sense of where he wants to take the country. If he can convince primary voters that he is no babe in the woods on foreign policy, he will continue to put distance between himself and the rest of the declared field.