THIS COLUMN is not about Bill Clinton, the governor of Arkansas, who is running for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. It is about something that has happened to Mr. Clinton as the primaries draw near. He has become the "front-runner" in the Democratic race. We know he has become the front-runner because the most important newspapers and television stations have said so.
The New York Times has referred to his "front-runner" status. Morton Kondracke of the New Republic has said on the "McLaughlin Group" that "I assume Clinton's the front-runner." Time has called him "the front-runner by default." Even foreign news organizations have picked up the refrain. "Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton has emerged as the clear front-runner to represent the Democratic Party," Agence France-Presse has bluntly informed its readers. Some go a step further and ask, with Joe Klein of New York magazine, whether Mr. Clinton may not be on the verge of locking up the nomination in the season's first primary in New Hampshire.
But just what, we may ask, is a front-runner? How can you tell who is one and who isn't? Who confers this honor, and what does it mean? If someone is crowned king, I know what has happened. If he shouts "Off with his head!," some poor wretch's head is going to roll. If someone is elected president, I know what that means, too. I even have some idea of what it means if someone wins the Democratic primary in New Hampshire. But what can it mean for someone to be "anointed" (as they say) front-runner in a political contest before a single vote has been cast?
The general meaning of the word is clear enough. A front-runner is the person deemed likeliest to win a race or contest. It's surprising, therefore, to find that many of those who maintain that Mr. Clinton is the front-runner tell us in their very next breath that this by no means guarantees Mr. Clinton an advantage over his rivals. On the contrary, being the front-runner, they cagily warn, may actually be a drawback. "Front-runners . . .," the Times reminds its readers, "are often bleeders, particularly front-runners who acquire that status with no input from the voters . . ."
By this reckoning, then, front-runners in presidential races may be candidates who have acquired a significant handicap in their run for the presidency. From this, we might draw the following conclusion: Front-runners in political races are those who have fallen behind the other candidates. After all, our interest is to know who is likely to be the nominee, and if "front-runner status" is a harbinger of failure, then the phrase must in this case signify the very opposite of what the words plainly mean.
That such paradoxical speculations are not idle can be shown by many examples, including that of Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, who in 1972 was widely designated the Democratic front-runner in the months before the primaries but went down to rapid defeat as soon as the voting began.
The elaborate business of front-runnership becomes more elaborate still when we remember that the principal (though not the only) evidence that someone is the front-runner is the fact that he is reported to be one. To be fully accurate, articles reporting that someone is a front-runner ought to cite those very same articles as evidence of the fact. The Washington Post, indeed, recently followed a procedure close to this one. One article, which seemed almost self-consciously to avoid calling Mr. Clinton the "front-runner" (it called him "the attention-getter in January, 1992"), reported his growing "success" among political professionals. Another article the same day reported the press had bestowed "front-runner status" on Mr. Clinton, and mentioned one of the paper's own columnists as someone who had participated in the deed.
The impression that being a front-runner is a curse is only strengthened when we read that the candidates thus labeled often strenuously shun the honor, as Mr. Clinton did recently in New Hampshire. His aides claim that former Democratic Sen. Paul Tsongas, who does in fact lead in the polls in New Hampshire, is the front-runner. Candidates, it seems, fear having to live up to the high expectations imposed on a front-runner, and live in dread of the sudden deflation of a candidacy that can occur when a supposed front-runner is dethroned from his position by some minor reversal. They know that the very pressures that caused the press and others to puff up the doubtful bubble of front-runnership may drive them shortly to burst it. They know, too, that voters may resent the preemption of the people's will by reporters and political professionals, and vote out of spite for someone less celebrated, who then, in the full and true sense of the word, will be the front-runner.
Jonathan Schell is a columnist for Newsday.