New York campaign has lost some luster ON POLITICS

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

April 06, 1992|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

NEW YORK -- Here in Fun City they like to brag about how this is the big leagues of American politics. But the New York primary campaign has been essentially a trivial exercise with little redeeming social value.

It is true, of course, that the twons to deal with the special problems of urban America. And it is true that Clinton delivered one attention-earning speech on foreign policy. But that has not what the New York campaign has been about, not by a long shot.

Instead, it has been about whether Clinton, as claimed, "stood up to the tabloids" that made a federal case out of his clumsy dissembling on whether he had ever smoked marijuana. It has been about Brown's pandering to black voters by insisting he would put Jesse Jackson on a national ticket he never will have the opportunity to form.

It has been about Clinton dealing with hecklers and Phil Donahue and trying a lame joke about keeping a kosher kitchen in the White House. And it has been about Brown accusing Clinton of conflicts-of-interest as governor that have never been documented and of closet racism because he was politically dumb enough to play golf at an all-white club in Little Rock.

It can be argued that these "issues" were worth exploring. One of the purposes of the primary season is to find out which candidates can hit the curve ball. So perhaps it is worthwhile to discover that Clinton, for all his vaunted skills as a politician, can commit gaffes worthy of a candidate for sewer commissioner in Buffalo.

But there has been little or no serious discussion of just how Clinton would translate his concern for the middle class into policy if he wins the presidency. The economic "debate" has been centered on Brown's half-formed idea for a 13 percent flat tax to replace the entire existing system. Clinton says it's a rip-off, and Brown says Clinton just doesn't understand it -- without ever spelling out his own understanding of the idea and how it would work, if at all.

One of the problems in this primary clearly has been Brown's brand of gonzo politics. He is the ultimate moving target, skipping from one issue to another, touching one raw nerve after another in the electorate, zapping Clinton and repeating his 800 number for the television cameras.

By contrast, in the New Hampshire primary campaign, the voters were given detailed expositions of the differences among the candidates on the merits of the middle-class tax cut, on how to create more jobs and on what tax changes should be used to encourage new investment in industrial plant and equipment. There were clear differences among the candidates on how to deal with the health care crisis -- differences that were fully explored before the primary voters made their decisions. There were similar differences on education and the environment, also fully explored.

There is no mystery about why the New Hampshire primary campaign was a more educational exercise. Because the primary was first, candidates spent several months in the state.

But New York has been center stage for almost three weeks now, ever since the votes were counted in Illinois and Michigan March 17. So there has been time and occasion for a more serious campaign than the nonsense to which voters here have been treated.

The result is that the turnout tomorrow is expected to be extremely low. The voters here are not stupid and they know they have been given little substance. The key question now is how a small turnout will affect the outcome.

The conventional wisdom is that a low turnout would benefit the favorite of the party regulars, in this case Clinton. But some veterans of the political wars here believe there is so little enthusiasm for Clinton that the insurgent Brown may benefit from a disproportionate protest vote. Two late opinion polls show Clinton leading but with a large number -- as high as 25 percent -- of voters claiming to be undecided. Such a pattern usually means many of them simply won't vote.

Given the quality of the campaign, who could blame them.

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