With the nation bracing for a fall campaign between George Bush and Bill Clinton, it can expect both presidential candidates to start moving toward the center where the votes are. That's also where both of these politicians belong instinctively. President Bush is a non-ideological pragmatist who is no longer under compelling pressures to cater to the Buchanan right. Governor Clinton's true mooring are reflected in his long association with the Democratic Leadership Council, an elite group dedicated to shedding its party of leftist liberalism.
The question, then, is how the two combatants will define themselves in ways other than a lust for office. For the past several months, they have been "un-defining" themselves -- Mr. Clinton by pretending to be a traditional Democrat as an answer to the Tsongas challenge, Mr. Bush by caving in to what used to be known as the Moral Majority and by repudiating his own tax-and-budget record.
Fortunately for Mr. Clinton, he will have the luxury of jousting with Jerry Brown in one primary after another, thus getting needed exposure in such key states as New York, Ohio, Wisconsin and California. The contrast with Mr. Brown's guerrilla-style protest should give the Arkansas governor the opportunity to appear downright presidential, unless new revelations about his personal life intrude.
As for Mr. Bush, his early tactics are to seek confrontation with a Democratic Congress that is a lot more liberal than his prospective opponent. His rejection of the new Democratic tax package and his attempt to stop home-district projects costing $4 billion is just the beginning.
There is, however, much for the president to worry about: a stubborn recession, a possible presidential bid by Texas entrepreneur Ross Perot, the defiant presence of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad and the boiling up of the abortion issue if the Supreme Court rejects Roe vs. Wade. He also faces in Mr. Clinton a Southerner who may recapture much of Dixie for his party.
But Mr. Clinton, too, has formidable liabilities: questions about his character, probings about his record, an Electoral College tilt to the Republicans and, above all, Mr. Bush's powers of incumbency. The president has means to stimulate the economy, to defuse issues with clever compromises, even to bomb Iraq at a moment when he might want the country to rally around his leadership.
But what about policies that will carry this country into the 21st century? The United States needs to examine deeply its proper role in the post-Cold War world and the troubles that roil the American way of life at home. It needs to assess the relative usefulness of economic and military power, and where its priorities should lie. Most important, it should recapture a sense of purpose and progress.
George Bush and Bill Clinton can address these matters or they can limit themselves to day-to-day maneuverings for advantage. they choose the latter course, one will still emerge the winner -- but a diminished winner.