The Slight Underdog


July 18, 1992|By DANIEL BERGER

Forget the euphoria. Remember that, four years ago, Mike Dukakis had the same momentum coming out of the convention. Bill Clinton starts out as a slight underdog.

But he starts out with two pieces of -- for him -- good news.

* Industrial production fell in June for the first time in five months. This partly reflects the brief rail strike which was not President Bush's fault. Auto sales also had a lot to do with it, and they reflect employment and confidence, both of which are below normal.

* Housing starts fell in June. This may reflect higher than normal construction activity during a mild winter, but that is little solace to President Bush. With mortgage rates low, housing starts are supposed to be up. If they are down, that is another indication the recession is back.

The cries of anguish about the nation at the Democratic National Convention fell into two categories, fundamental and cyclical. President Bush can withstand the fundamental malaise. It is the business cycle that may do him in.

And although the Federal Reserve Board with its vaunted political independence invariably tries to help re-elect an incumbent president, his own ability to manipulate the business cycle over so short a term is limited.

Mr. Clinton's bad news was the premature collapse of Ross Perot's quixotic campaign. Until now, Mr. Perot had been attacking President Bush, particularly Mr. Bush's fitness as a statesman, and giving Mr. Clinton a free ride.

If Mr. Clinton is going to win, he has to reduce the confidence that the American public had in Mr. Bush as recently as one year ago, and simultaneously convince the people of his own presidentiality. That word encompasses maturity, judgment and dignity. The perception that he lacks it is Mr. Clinton's biggest weakness.

It is hard to do both. While Mr. Perot was busy torpedoing Mr. Bush, Mr. Clinton did not have to try. Now he must.

For its part, the Republican negative machine was starting to switch targets to Mr. Perot. Now it can concentrate on ''Slick Willie.''

The Perot collapse clarifies this as a traditional two-party election. No more can the Democrats be content just to get it into the House of Representatives. Winning the rural South -- even if the Clinton-Gore ticket could -- would not compensate for loss of the big states of the four coasts (Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf and Lakes). Mr. Clinton, like Mr. Bush, needs an absolute majority.

But it does appear that the illusion of a three-way race had faked out President Bush more than Mr. Clinton. This election will be dominated, as so many have, by the moderate center of American politics: the undecided, floating voter.

Mr. Clinton had campaigned to bring the Democratic Party back to that search for the center, sometimes defined as the middle class. The well-managed convention and platform show the result.

Mr. Bush, however, reacted to the Perot phenomenon by firming up his rapport with the right. That's all very well when 40 percent of the vote carries a state. In a two-way race, Mr. Bush must seek the center and retain the enthusiasm of the right without seeming to try.

Despite Mr. Clinton's call for centrism, the Democratic nominee emerges as the champion of blacks, women, Hispanics, gays, youth, the poor and the unshaven, as convention camera-work attested. This was what pundits chastised the Democratic Party for after past defeats. Unrepentant Democratic dignitaries sported red ribbons of solidarity with AIDS victims.

Whatever his games with Jesse Jackson, Mr. Clinton is not discouraging feminist support. He is running as the women's candidate, and let the Republicans make what jokes they may. Allusions to Clarence Thomas brought out more power in decibels than any other negative code word in Madison Square Garden.

The question for the army of female politicians, candidates and volunteers energized to Mr. Clinton's side by the Thomas-Hill business, is whether it can bring a clear majority of female voters along.

This issue was joined 12, 8 and 4 years ago, and each time the ''women's side'' lost and failed to carry a clear majority of women. Last time, Mr. Bush won a mandate to nominate David Souter and Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Now, presumably, he will be made to pay for that.

But all the angry women in the Democratic Party would not overcome the benefit to Mr. Bush of a truly robust economic recovery.

And the most unrelenting expose of Mr. Clinton's character that we can anticipate could not rescue Mr. Bush from a third descent into ever-deeper recession.

The election is really up to the economy, over which Mr. Bush has little control and Mr. Clinton none.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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