WASHINGTON — Washington. Many Democrats, perhaps, have been thinking the way I have about our party's presidential nomination. For many months my position was: I'm for Clinton -- just don't tell me anything about him. More recently my position has been: Goddammit, I told you not to tell me anything about him.
According to ''Doonesbury'' and others, Bill Clinton in person emits some magic scent that causes strong journalists to swoon. This may be true. But for most Democrats (including me) who've never met the man, his appeal is different. For Democrats, the Age of Romance is over. We're not looking to swoon. All we want now is a good provider who'll be kind to the children.
For Republicans, as well, true romance is not in the cards this year. George Bush is not a man to swoon over -- he's a man to keep the enemy from the door. For loyalists of both parties, though, the trouble with the politics of lowered expectations is that whenever you think you've lowered them enough, you've got to lower them again.
The other day I called my guru Charlie Peters, editor of the Washington Monthly and a Southerner, to get the party line. What do we think of Clinton now? ''Ah cain't decide,'' said Charlie in some agony: ''Is he too much of a liar?'' That is exactly the right question, in the spirit of 1992. Of course he's a liar. They're all liars. But is he too much of a liar?
Clearly he's too much of a liar for his own good, and when he's not lying he's a reflexive weaseler. Even many supporters think he's lying about Gennifer Flowers, which is odd considering his artful honesty on the general question of adultery. His ''never broke the laws of my country'' evasion about marijuana was doubly pointless: first, because youthful dope smoking is a proven non-issue; and second, because it was inevitable he'd be cornered.
Nevertheless, he'll do. That's the standard, and Mr. Clinton meets it.
The notion that the press has given Bill Clinton a free ride is preposterous. About the only thing people know, or think they know, about him is that he has ''character'' problems. Not one in 20 people who are under this vague impression has weighed the details of the various charges to determine whether they are valid. And not one in 50 could tell you what his economic program is. Unless you think Governor Clinton is patently disqualified and should have been driven from the race, it's hard to see how the press coverage has tilted things in his favor.
Now New Yorkers -- preening themselves on their hard-nosed skepticism -- may be about to prove that they can see through Slick Willie by awarding an upset to the 1992 campaign's most obvious fraud, the Unspeakable Jerry Brown. Mr. Brown is hustling these supposedly street-smart voters like a three-card monte operator hustling tourists on Fifth Avenue. For cryin' out loud, folks, how long you been in this town?
Governor Clinton's ''scandals'' need to be put in perspective. So he played golf at an all-white country club. Has anybody gone back to check the many places where the golf-mad George Bush has tee'd off over the years?
Similarly, whatever you make of Hillary Clinton's law practice, no one seriously supposes that the Clintons are financially corrupt. Their ambitions so clearly lie elsewhere. Meanwhile (as Pat Buchanan was pointing out) President Bush's very campaign team is stocked with people who have made fortunes by selling their influence with his administration.
Mr. Clinton even gets it these days for being too ambitious and ''too political.' You really cannot win. Michael Dukakis was savaged for not being political enough, not fighting back. Now Mr. Clinton is criticized as the ultimate politician in an anti-politician year. It's even considered some kind of defect that he has wanted to be president all his life. Children used to be taught that America is a great country because any child can grow up to be president.
Of the remaining serious presidential contenders -- Messrs. Bush, Brown and Clinton -- it is the so-called ''robo-candidate,'' Mr. Clinton, who has given the most evidence of a genuine heart beating under the circuit boards. Read, in Time magazine, excerpts from a letter he wrote to a classmate at the time of his draft troubles. I'm not sure these lines absolve Mr. Clinton of slickness on the draft issue. But they reveal a level of moral reflectiveness George Bush has never achieved, on available evidence.
Nor can you imagine Mr. Bush (or Mr. Brown) displaying the combined human anger and human compassion of Mr. Clinton in his televised outburst against that AIDS activist in New York. Now the governor's a very smart guy, and I wouldn't absolutely put it past him to have faked this famous mad scene. But a politician who could fake humanity that skillfully would be just about as good as a real human being.
In other words, he'll do. I think.
TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.