Clinton's Basic Chances

GEORGE F. WILL

July 20, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

New York. -- The popping of the Perot bubble means the House of Representatives can relax. And so can the rest of us. We will be spared the spectacle of that lot picking a president.

It also means that Bill Clinton's climb toward the pinnacle of power will be steeper still. But it is a climb he can make as a back-to-basics candidate.

After the Dukakis debacle a Democrat, noting the disparity between his party's anemia in presidential politics and its strength in state and local elections, said, ''We do better the closer we get to people's garbage.'' This is true for three reasons that Mr. Clinton, on the evidence of his well-choreographed convention, understands.

First, people know that Democrats, a peculiar but useful species, actually like government and can make it do mundane things, like garbage collection. One of Mr. Clinton's tasks is to convince the country that the federal government's most pressing tasks today are akin to garbage collection. That is, the tasks are elementary maintenance, not exotic creativity -- safe streets, not a Great Society. His emphasis on schools and roads conveys a reassuring banality.

Second, people more readily trust Democrats with state and local governments than with the presidency because state and local governments do not have armies and navies. People have scant confidence in the Democrats' understanding of the role of force in foreign policy. However, Mr. Clinton chose as a running mate a senator who was one of just 10 Democratic senators who, on the issue of authorizing force against Iraq, did not take a position to the left of the United Nations.

Third, people have become dubious about a Democrat's ability to fulfill what has come to be considered an inherently conservative presidential function. It consists of presiding over rapid social change in a robust entrepreneurial society, but change consistent with the conservation of things associated with order -- family, faith, discipline, self-reliance. Because of his party's temperate platform and convention rhetoric, Mr. Clinton leaves here better positioned than any Democratic nominee since LBJ in 1964 to get at least a hearing in the more conservative, martial and entrepreneurial regions, the South and the West.

The Democrats' decision to convene here called attention to how important those other places have become. In 1944, this city cast 7 percent of the nation's vote. In 1988, it cast just 2.2 percent. Today, as Democratic pollster Peter Hart says, a Democratic nominee must be part Horace Greeley and part U.S. Grant -- able to go West and capture the South.

In the 11 states of the old Confederacy, Democrats, in their last five defeats, have a record of two wins and 53 losses. Those

states have 147 electoral votes, 54 percent of the 270 needed to win. The South has been the cemetery of Democrats' hopes, but the West has not been appreciably more hospitable. West of the Mississippi there are 24 states. In the last five elections, the Democrats' record is 13 wins and 107 losses.

In the 10 elections since 1952, the 34 states that have voted Republican eight or more times now have 336 electoral votes. The 42 states that have voted Republican four or more times in the six elections since 1968 have 444 electoral votes. The 21 that have voted Republican in all six have 191. The states George Bush won by 20 points or more have 114.

Furthermore, in the 132 years since the first Republican president was elected, Democrats have controlled the presidency for just 48 years. In the 33 elections since 1860, Democratic nominees have won 51 percent of the popular vote just five times -- FDR four times and LBJ in 1964.

Given these daunting numbers, Democrats welcomed a third candidate to scramble the equation. Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Walter Mondale in 1984 each barely surpassed 40 percent of the vote. But in a three-way race that total might have sufficed this year. Hence the Bush people were talking about a strategy of ''Goldwater plus 3 percent.'' (Barry Goldwater got 38.5 percent -- and just six states.)

Ross Perot's stillborn candidacy, which sagged like an ice cream cone in July, would have helped Mr. Clinton. At the moment when this indescribably silly farce collapsed, Mr. Perot had not even been issued his convictions (they were on order from a convictions warehouse somewhere). However, his persona was clear: It was conservative. He would have had negligible appeal to blacks, but might have gotten many white Southern and Western votes that Mr. Bush now may win.

Consider California with its 54 electoral votes, one-fifth of the necessary 270. In 1988 Mr. Bush carried California with just 51.1 percent, a smaller percentage than he received in 35 of the 40 states he won. Mr. Bush's winning margin in Orange County (317,000 votes) was 90 percent of his statewide margin (350,000). Orange County was Perot country.

The flight of Ross Perot from the heat of the kitchen is better news for Mr. Bush than he has earned by anything he has recently done. But it will not by itself be nearly enough to guarantee a second term to this president who has made a sow's ear from the silk purse of Republican strength that his predecessor handed to him.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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