It's undebatable, Clinton says -- Bush's politics are 'diversion, division, denial'

September 23, 1992|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Staff Writer

EAST LANSING, MICH — EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Speaking on the campus where last night's aborted presidential debate was to take place, Gov. Bill Clinton yesterday charged that President Bush had ducked the encounter because under the format proposed "he would have had a harder time with his politics of diversion, division and denial."

"The great enemy of the American future," he said, "is the election campaign being run by Mr. Bush -- a campaign designed to sow fear and uncertainty and doubt, to make the American people look backward when they ought to be looking forward."

Mr. Clinton told cheering students at Michigan State University that the format put forward by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, providing for a single moderator rather than a press panel, was rejected by the Bush campaign because it would have inhibited the president's style of attack politics.

"Why didn't he show up today?" Mr. Clinton asked. "I'll tell you why. He's not ducking this debate because he's a bad debater. As a matter of fact, he's won most of his national debates when there was a tightly controlled format in which he was free to dump on his opponents or attack the press. He did an effective job.

"But in this debate," he said, "the commission recommended a format with one moderator in which there would be more time for us to answer questions and then to do follow-ups and then have serious discussions about the problems and challenges and opportunities" facing the nation.

"I guess I can't blame him," Mr. Clinton said. "If I had the worst record of any president in 50 years, I wouldn't want to defend that record either."

Immediately after the speech, the Bush campaign countered with a news conference at which Republican National Chairman Richard N. Bond and Michigan Gov. John Engler, chairman of the Bush-Quayle campaign in the state, charged that it was the Arkansas governor who was ducking debates.

Mr. Bond showed a new TV commercial called "The Great Debate: Clinton vs. Clinton," presenting Mr. Clinton making statements in which he appeared to take contradictory positions on various issues. Mr. Bond suggested that the contents of the ad and accompanying campaign pamphlet would be what would cost Mr. Clinton the election, not whether there would be debates.

The ad opened with the Arkansas governor pledging in 1990 -- when he was running for re-election -- that he would serve out the four-yearterm and then showed him accepting the Democratic presidential nomination last July. It then offered conflicting statements, often in his own words, on balancing the budget, gas consumption standards, appointments to the Supreme Court, a middle-class tax cut and his draft deferments.

The commercial is the latest effort by the Bush campaign to paint Mr. Clinton as insufficiently trustworthy to be president.

When Mr. Bush directly took up the matter of his Democratic opponent's draft record in a radio interview Monday, he cast it not in terms of Mr. Clinton's failure to serve in the military, but rather that his various explanations raised an issue of credibility.

Mr. Bond at the same time insisted that Mr. Bush wants to debate and argued that it was Mr. Clinton who was ducking, by declining to have representatives negotiate the conditions directly. He called on the Democratic nominee to "come to the table and get the debates arranged once and for all."

fTC Paul Begala, a Clinton political adviser, reiterated to reporters after the governor's speech that his side would negotiate but only in the open, and would accept whatever format was worked out through the commission.

Mr. Bond said the Republicans wanted no third party involved in the negotiations. He cited precedent over the last 16 years for debates to be worked out between the two parties, with recommendations from the commission treated as no more than that.

In an open-air setting on a beautiful fall day, Mr. Clinton quoted a Bush statement in 1980 accusing President Jimmy Carter, seeking re-election, of stalling on debating Republican challenger Ronald Reagan "because he wants to avoid talking about his economic record. I mean, how do you debate the merits of an economic policy that put 1.9 million people out of work?"

Yet today, Mr. Clinton said, there are 3 million more unemployed "than when he [Mr. Bush] took office."

The Democratic challenger hit hard at the state of the economy, which continues to plague Michigan with a 9 percent jobless rate and as many as 70,000 jobs lost since Mr. Bush assumed the presidency.

"I'm not surprised that instead of showing up here today to make the case that the next four years ought to be like the last four," he said, "Mr. Bush is instead flying to states all around my native state to tell them what a bad governor I've been. . . . I'll bet you anything he won't point out that Arkansas ranks first in the country in job growth this year."

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