DAVENPORT, Iowa -- When Gov. Bill Clinton and Sen. Al Gore resumed their unorthodox bus caravan up the Mississippi Valley the other day, their wordsmiths dubbed it "On the Road to Change America." The planned message was that the young Southerners were traveling salesmen peddling new medicine for the sick American economy, and they did that.
They recited all the familiar criticisms of President Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle as the embodiments of the status quo, and Gore led cooperative crowds in his favorite chant for change at home: "What time is it?" "Time for them to go!"
At an unusually large weeknight rally at Burlington, Iowa, on the banks of the Mississippi River, Clinton read a sign in the crowd that he gleefully reported to the audience as saying, "We're not lazy and we're not tired. We're just Bushed." And Gore took up the refrain of change by saying that "Bush and Quayle have run out of ideas, they've run out of energy, they've run out of gas and with your help come November, they're going to be run out of office."
Repeatedly the two Democrats ridiculed President Bush's efforts paint himself somehow as an agent of change at home in the next four years, after having spent the past four complaining that Congress wouldn't let him do anything new.
Not surprisingly, Bush's re-election strategists have been attempting to shift the campaign focus from the stagnant domestic front to the foreign-policy arena, where he has credentials of considerably more luster.
The recent Iraqi mini-crisis gave the president an opportunity to make that shift. But it has not been all to his advantage. Clinton and Gore, while talking up change at home, are not being reluctant to join the debate in Bush's supposed area of expertise.
Bush's contention that Saddam Hussein "caved in" to U.N. and U.S. pressures was undermined by the Iraqi dictator's success in keeping American and other Persian Gulf War opponents off the inspection team. And the more Saddam is in the news, the more Clinton and Gore take the opportunity to remind voters of Bush's decision to end the war short of ousting him.
At a question-and-answer session with students and local citizens at East St. Louis (Mo.) Senior High School the other day, a young man asked Clinton whether he supported the president's dispatch of more naval forces to the Middle East. Clinton said he supported the action but then offered that he was not ready to suggest Bush had taken the action for domestic political reasons.
At the same time, Gore questioned why Bush had permitted Saddam to violate U.N. cease-fire prohibitions against use of aircraft to commit "mass murders" against the Kurds and other ** dissident groups in Iraq. And Clinton charged that after the war Bush "clearly" wanted Saddam to stay in power. If either of the Democrats feel they are at a disadvantage discussing foreign policy, they show no evidence of it.
Neither do they shy away from tilting with the leader of the only remaining world superpower over what the American role should be in the Balkans quagmire. They continue to criticize Bush for timidity in responding to the reports of mass extermination by Serbian forces in the name of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.
At the same high school, Clinton called for "an immediate session of the United Nations Security Council" to consider "doing whatever it takes to stop the slaughter of civilians," including the use of air power "to try to restore the basic conditions of humanity" in splintered Yugoslavia. While saying he wants to focus on the problems at home, Clinton said "we can't afford what appears to be the deliberate, systematic extermination of human beings based on their ethnic origin."
Gore, noting that European countries have been "a little timid in stopping this mass murder and look to the United States for leadership," painted Bush as a man who has not learned one of history's bitterest lessons. "The world stood by in silence once before when this happened," he said at the high school, in an obvious reference to the Nazi Holocaust.
This willingness on the part of the two Democrats to engage Bush on foreign policy may yet play into the president's hands. But so far at least, they are not the least intimidated by what they see as his somewhat tarnished world leadership credentials.