Bush and Clinton wield words to define debate to their advantage

July 29, 1992|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Campaigning in the Midwest this week, President Bush used the word "trust" 20 times in each of two speeches in Michigan and Wisconsin. Meanwhile, campaigning on the West Coast, Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton was equally obsessed with the word "change."

In politics, this is called "positioning" -- the attempt by candidates to define the terms of the debate between them in the most advantageous way.

Cutting through the rhetoric, Mr. Bush is saying that he and not the inexperienced governor of Arkansas is the one who can be trusted when an international crisis develops. And Mr. Clinton is saying that only a challenger can accomplish the movement away from the policies of the past four years and the products of those policies that voters don't accept.

Until the confrontation with Iraq developed, Mr. Clinton had seemed to enjoy all the best of it because he had forced Mr. Bush into insisting that he, too, was an agent of "change." But that is obviously a difficult posture for an incumbent with a record to defend. So now the president has abruptly changed tacks.

Mr. Bush's explanation was labored, perhaps even tortured, but no less pointed.

"This election is not just about change," he told one audience, "because change has a flip-side and that flip-side is trust." Then he told another: "America will change by reaffirming the lesson it has taught the world -- by trusting a leader who trusts you."

Mr. Clinton was just as insistent on his definition of the campaign.

"You know," he told the Urban League in San Diego, "sometimes you've got to change just to survive. Change is the law of life. Change is necessary to preserve our basic values. Change today is the order not just for people who think of themselves as liberal -- that is, open and reaching out and inclusive -- but for people who think of themselves as conservatives. How can you conserve the basic values, how can you conserve the fabric of your life if you do not have the courage to change when what you're doing is tearing the heart out of your country?"

There are clearly identifiable political equities on both sides of this struggle to set the agenda for the campaign.

On the one hand, Mr. Clinton is appealing to an electorate that is demonstrably angry about the condition of the economy.

Current opinion polls, using a standard measuring question, show 75 percent to 80 percent of the voters believe that the country is "off on the wrong track" rather than "headed in the right direction." The experience of previous campaigns shows that voters who hold that view generally split better than 2-to-1 against incumbents.

But it is equally well established that the "trust" factor can be significant in elections in which an incumbent president is opposed by a challenger.

Voters recognize that they are taking some risk in supporting a newcomer, and their decisions hinge on whether they believe that risk is acceptable when weighed against other factors.

This fear of the unknown -- or at least uneasiness about it -- was a major reason in the 1976 election that challenger Jimmy Carter lost most of his 30 percent lead over President Gerald R. Ford.

Mr. Bush is playing that card heavily. "When you go into that voting booth and pull the curtain behind you, trust matters," he said in Wisconsin.

But Mr. Bush may not be ideally positioned to use the issue. Since the end of the Cold War, voter concern about foreign policy questions has plunged to the asterisk level in opinion polls.

Whether or not Saddam Hussein is a "bully" who has been given his comeuppance, Iraq is not a frightening superpower in the class of the Soviet Union.

Nor is Mr. Bush able to exploit the Iraq situation totally despite the success of Operation Desert Storm. Sen. Al Gore, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, demonstrated as much when he fired his own rhetorical questions:

"If President Bush and Vice President Quayle are such whizzes at foreign policy, why is Saddam Hussein still thumbing his nose at the entire world and proclaiming victory? And why is he still in power?"

But the arguments over the specifics -- Mr. Bush's success or failure with Iraq, the wisdom or rashness of Mr. Clinton's proposals on Yugoslavia -- are less important politically than who defines the debate at this early stage of the campaign.

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