An issue going nowhere

Elaine Ciulla Kamarck

September 22, 1992|By Elaine Ciulla Kamarck

THE relentless attacks on Bill Clinton's draft record seem to be having little or no impact. There are two reasons why. The first has to do with the issue itself; the second has to do, ironically, with George Bush's Persian Gulf legacy.

Of the 34 million men eligible for the draft during the years of the Vietnam war, only a minority expressed clear opposition to the war either by going to jail or becoming conscientious objectors. The vast majority took no clear stand: They got out any way they could. Those days were filled with a great deal of ambivalence. tTC On the one hand, there was the obligation to serve; on the other, a very unpopular war. To this day, the ambivalence surrounds the issue and Mr. Clinton.

The first problem that Republicans are having with this issue stems from the fact that attempting to insult your opponent for his actions while at the same time exempting millions of people who did the same thing is a tough trick. Try as they may to separate service in Vietnam from the issue of what Mr. Clinton did or did not say about his actions, making the draft issue work for Mr. Bush without insulting baby-boomer men -- a large segment of the electorate -- is turning out to be as tough as making the family-values issue work for Mr. Bush without turning off baby-boomer women.

But the other big lesson of recent presidential politics is that for a "character" issue to hurt it has to relate to how a candidate will govern. If Mr. Clinton's opposition to the Vietnam War had translated into an isolationist view of the world, in which American intervention was almost always wrong, American leadership was practically nonexistent and American military strength was to be decimated -- the issue would be working more for Mr. Bush.

This is where Mr. Bush's legacy comes into play. He will be remembered for having kept the promise made in his inaugural -- to end, once and for all, the Vietnam era. In the conduct of the Persian Gulf war, he showed baby boomers a model of the effective use of U.S. military might. The careful construction of an international coalition, the clearly defined nature of the military objective, the success of a military venture that was not micro-managed from the White House -- these and many other facets of the Persian Gulf war stand in sharp contrast to the Vietnam debacle. Americans of an entire generation whose experiences with Vietnam had made them suspicious about U.S. intervention in the world learned something from George Bush.

At the time of the critical Senate vote, Mr. Clinton was as unsure as the rest of America. But once the 1992 campaign started, Mr. Clinton, unlike his opponents for the Democratic nomination, had learned the lesson. He forthrightly said Mr. Bush was right to go to war -- a statement not without its risks in Democratic primaries that have traditionally contained a high proportion of peace activists. As his foreign policy positions evolved, it became clear that Bill Clinton was in the mainstream on foreign policy and defense issues; he does not evoke memories of Michael Dukakis in the tank or Jimmy Carter held hostage in the White House.

Elaine Ciulla Kamarck wrote this column for Newsday.

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