Bill Clinton used the words "change," "new" and "better" some 20 times in his acceptance speech in New York. He emphasized that theme in his recent swing through California. George Bush responded Monday in speeches in Michigan and Wisconsin. "Change has a flip side," he said, "and it's called trust." He used the word "trust" some 40 times in two speeches.
Bill Clinton made it clear he means to change the nation's economic policy. George Bush says trust is important in a world leader who must deal with war-and-peace, life-and-death issues. Such as, he pointedly said, Saddam Hussein's defiance of the United Nations. "The American people need to know that the man who answers [the hotline in a crisis] has the experience, the seasoning to do the right thing."
The president didn't mention Governor Clinton by name, but in case anyone missed the point, Republican Gov. John Engler of Michigan said, "The last untried and untested governor from the South was Jimmy Carter. Who can remember 1980? Who can forget?" This is fair campaign rhetoric, and Governor Clinton's inexperience in the fields of foreign policy and national security is fair game. This debate is more than fair -- it's vital. A presidential campaign has to deal with those issues. A president affects a nation's role in world affairs much more than he affects the nation's economy and a nation's social values.
Governor Clinton has responded with criticisms of what President Bush has done and not done on the world stage. That is fair game, too. A president doesn't earn trust merely by being experienced. It's results that count. It is at least possible that the American voters who remember 1980 may decide that George Bush, not Bill Clinton, is the Jimmy Carter of 1992. That is, an incumbent president whose policies at home and in the Middle East have not produced results most voters approve of.
It is too soon to say how voters assess the Bush administration's successes and failures in connection with Iraq, with the former Soviet Union, with what was Yugoslavia, with Panama, with Israel, with China, with Japan. Their assessment will depend in large part on how well Governor Clinton critiques the foreign policies of the past four years and on how well President Bush defends them. That the debate has started at last is welcome, since the economy has so dominated political debate from New Hampshire to now that some Americans may have forgotten they are going to be electing a commander-in-chief in November.
Of course, voters want someone they can trust in a dangerous world. But they may also want someone who can change existing policies. An incumbent president is not by definition or by self-proclamation necessarily the former; and a challenger is not by definition or by assertion necessarily the latter.