We're Picking a President Does Anyone Care?

DANIEL BERGER

February 29, 1992|By DANIEL BERGER

I dropped in at Baltimore Clinton headquarters Wednesday to geta button for a collector. They had none. I have never seen so listless a presidential primary in Maryland.

You would think that nobody cared. Or that Maryland doesn't matter. Maryland has more people than Minnesota, more than New Hampshire, Maine and South Dakota combined.

The leading Democratic potential presidents in this country, each much discussed last year, are:

* George Mitchell, Senate majority leader, effective spokesman tTC for congressional Democratic policies, the authoritative voice of liberalism in the political arena today. Professional dopesters say he comes from too small and extreme (geographically) a state. Translation: If Sen. Ed Muskie couldn't make it, no one from Maine can. Maybe so, maybe not.

* Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, a charismatic leader with the rhetorical gift to unite the people Pat Buchanan has the gift of dividing. Untested on foreign policy. Having taken himself out until his state has a budget, he would be a laughing stock for reneging.

* Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, one of the reflective senators, clearly ambitious. He suffered a scare for re-election two years ago, and never recovered his nerve.

* Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, the Senate's expert on defense who sidelines in foreign policy. His domestic views were too conservative for a Democratic nominee's, until former Sen. Paul Tsongas rewrote the rules on that.

* Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, conservative, presidential and 71 years old and looks it.

But none is running. All thought President Bush invincible when they made their minds up during Desert Storm. There is no way to vote in the Maryland Democratic primary for any. No write-ins here. The race belongs to candidates who were not seen as major figures a year ago.

The Maryland voter's best tactical vote to keep the race open for added starters is Sen. Tom Harkin, who is is given the least chance here. If the object is more narrowly to Stop Clinton, vote Tsongas.

Gov. Bill Clinton had Maryland sewn up, and decided to concentrate on Georgia, which he needs desperately to stay alive. Then he saw that Paul Tsongas might come from behind here on New Hampshire momentum. So Mr. Clinton darted up to be seen courting the black vote, which no one else has.

Mr. Tsongas has not been taken seriously enough as presidential material, till now, for voters to worry about his career as a business lobbyist. If he wins Maryland, the scrutiny factor will rise.

Women are the group, besides blacks, whom Democrats need. Mr. Tsongas is the candidate who most clearly sees the election as a referendum on abortion which he and Democrats can win. Fiscally a true Republican where George Bush is not, Mr. Tsongas has made abortion rights (and the Bush judiciary) his issue.

Governor Clinton headed a faction called the Democratic Leadership Conference designed to make the party more conservative than it is in Congress. Then Mr. Clinton and Mr. Tsongas, both conservative in the Democratic spectrum, emerged as the front-runners. So Mr. Clinton began running as the liberal. His detractors (they are many, their reasons fuzzy) say he always was.

Mr. Clinton wants to give the virtuous middle class a tiny federal tax break, when the states and cities are deciding which essential services live and die, and which local taxes go up. Mr. Tsongas knows Mr. Clinton's ploy is a cruel electoral trick, but history records that Democrats who run against Santa Claus get nothing for Christmas.

This is not a good primary for Republicans, either, alas.

There should be a way to send President Bush a message that he is a nice fellow but out-to-lunch on unemployment, crime, drugs, women's rights, medical care and homelessness, and ought to shape up. There is no way to send such a message in Maryland.

* A vote for Pat Buchanan is a different message: to divide the population against itself, to renounce influence abroad, to despise all sorts of people. He is running as outsider and patriot, the phoniest ever, an inside-the-Capital-Beltway plutocrat with a talent for words and a Mercedes who knows nothing of the travails of the people of Dundalk or -- since he thinks it's where he might win -- rural Georgia.

* George Bush is the only president Americans have and the only president conservatives can have in the near future. He is the only candidate Republicans have with a chance to win. A vote for Pat Buchanan is not a vote to shape up George Bush, but to put Jerry Brown or any kook into the White House instead.

There must be, you say, a better way for democracy to work?

''The solution,'' former Vice President Walter F. Mondale wrote in the New York Times Wednesday, ''is to reduce the influence of the primaries and boost the influence of party leaders, who can be held accountable for the personal and political character of a nominee.''

In other words, bring back the bosses, the smoke-filled rooms, the backstage dealing!

If that is the best advice from its most eminent living reformer, the Democratic Party is in deeper trouble than we had feared. If all it wants is to return to power and doesn't know why, the nation should stick with Mr. Bush. If Democrats in Congress want a stronger presidential nominee only to give themselves stronger coattails, let them do without.

See you at the polls on Tuesday.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

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