Tabloid trash aside, New Hampshire has been about issues On Politics Today

JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

February 18, 1992|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Manchester, N.H. -- WHATEVER YOU think of the results, the New Hampshire primary campaign has taught significant lessons about the contest for the presidency in 1992.

One, clearly, is that President Bush is a vulnerable incumbent only a few months after his triumph in the Persian Gulf war because of the perception that he doesn't have a coherent plan for dealing with the parlous state of the economy and vexing domestic problems. The days when he could skate by on a smile and a shoeshine have passed; he is no Ronald Reagan.

The second is that the Democratic Party is paying a heavy price for the decisions made last year by so many of its leading figures -- Richard Gephardt, Bill Bradley, George Mitchell, Jay Rockefeller, to cite the most obvious -- that it would be more prudent to wait until 1996 when Mr. Bush would not be the opposition. Although several of the Democrats in the field now have shown an impressive grasp of the issues in the campaign, they are still largely unknown quantities to most of the voters and, perhaps because of their inexperience, uncertain campaigners having trouble presenting themselves as plausible presidents.

Still another inference that can be drawn from the campaign here is that voters are in no humor to suffer in silence through another campaign in which cheap media "hits" and sloganeering are the principal features. The New Hampshire electorate may be different because of its concentration on the recession. But to the extent that same concern is abroad elsewhere in the land, no candidate can prosper without persuading the voters that he has a genuine understanding of the problem and some thoughts about how to deal with it.

Not all of the lessons of this primary have been positive, of course. We have seen once again in the case of Bill Clinton that the so-called mainstream press is capable of being reduced to the lowest common denominator in its coverage of anything involving sex. Similarly, we have seen in the case of Mr. Clinton's draft history that the press is capable of a feeding frenzy that diverts all attention from more serious questions.

There also have been some lessons that apply to one of the two major political parties.

For Republicans, the bad news is that there is serious discontent with Mr. Bush among hard-line conservative voters who have always distrusted him. The notion that a columnist and television commentator could even be a serious player in a primary here would have been considered far-fetched just six months ago. That Pat Buchanan achieved such a stature without a conventional political base is evidence that there are problems for the White House on the right that cannot be dismissed with small gestures.

For the Democrats, there may be some good news -- a movement away from litmus-test politics fueled by a pragmatic insistence that winning is the first priority. It is now possible for a candidate to disagree with organized labor on an issue such as the fast track agreement with Mexico without being condemned by unions across the board. It is now possible for a Democrat to support the death penalty without being written out of the party. Old votes for the B1 bomber are no longer disqualifying. Nor does a Democrat risk exile by supporting nuclear power, even here in a state in which opposition to the Seabrook plant was an essential prerequisite to being taken seriously.

The one exception is the abortion rights issue. No candidate is going to be nominated unless he supports choice, but even here it is possible for a candidate to favor parental notification and even some limits on public funding and still be considered acceptable.

To a large degree, the lessons here are directly related to the preoccupation with the economic issue in New Hampshire. Voters worried about their jobs are not likely to concern themselves with the fine print of a candidate's position on capital punishment. And that, in turn, means that the lessons here may not apply with equal force in other states or in other times if the economy improves over the next few months. It still may be possible for Bush to return to slogans and sound bites about "values" and the "liberal Democrats" as the architects of the nation's ills.

But the New Hampshire campaign has been a far more elevating exercise than most recent elections. The issues have mattered far more than pompous posturing for the television cameras.

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