The Devil You Don't Know

DANIEL BERGER

October 24, 1992|By DANIEL BERGER | DANIEL BERGER,Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

This is the same George Bush who was invincible in 1988 and then won popular wars against Panama and Iraq.

If he is going down to defeat, as the polls and disarray in his camp suggest, it must be because he has changed, the American voters have changed or the times have changed.

Mr. Bush has not changed. His qualities on display endeared him to Americans four years ago. The people cannot fundamentally have changed. So it must be the times.

The persistent recession and its unusual job-toll among professional workers -- compared to previous business cycles -- have created a mood of pessimism among fundamentally unaltered people.

This laid-back, 68-year-old who lets things ride, who doesn't know how a check-out line works or that there isn't a draft, seems as wrong for these times as he seemed right before.

And so it is an odd conjunction of the stars -- as tracked on the business page, not the astrological page -- that makes the voters prefer the devil they don't know. It doesn't happen often.

The latest polls suggest that only an October surprise coup in foreign policy (MIA photos from Hanoi?) or a new and credible scandal allegation could stop Governor Clinton now. It is late in the game for either.

So the devil they don't know leads. And voters really don't know Bill Clinton very well. The Bush campaign tried to introduce its own version of the man, as it did so successfully with Michael Dukakis. But Mr. Clinton acted like a seasoned hitter who adjusted to the curve he saw pitched, while Mr. Bush like a one-season pitcher kept throwing the same curve.

The debates were the most valuable part of the campaign from a good-government, voter-education point of view. They introduced the two little-known candidates in ways no other medium could.

What Bill Clinton needed to do was show his presidentiality, not ''win'' a debating point. This means show the wisdom, the compassion, the maturity. He would have come across a little better if the makeup left some lines of experience on his face, if his blow-dried hair-do was a little mussed.

What he did show that was presidential was energy. He conveyed through body language that he would move out to meet the problems of the recession. He would be, he promised, his own economic czar. He also showed in the second debate that he understood the questions, and presumably the concerns of Americans.

At the same time, George Bush showed passivity toward the economy, the same passivity that was applauded in good times. It was the wrong note this year.

This does not mean that we know what Mr. Clinton as president would do about the recession or much of anything else. He is pretty much the Slick Willie of Republican portrayals, a real pragmatist as governor of Arkansas.

He also took himself seriously as presidential when no one else did, and has been preparing himself to govern, not just to win. From that perspective, ''Read my lips, no new taxes!'' was the last thing a winner should say, cutting his options, ignoring contingencies. It was what Bill Clinton would avoid if possible.

Mr. Clinton came out grudgingly in favor of the NAFTA treaty when the spotlight insured that refusing to take a stand would be worse politics than taking either side. But wherever possible, Candidate Clinton has avoided commitment and preserved maximum freedom of action for President Clinton.

There is reason to think that advisers in his camp have been preparing a set of issue papers to chart at least his initial direction and priorities -- for publication only after the victory, not to help voters decide.

Will he prime the pump with additional deficit spending, or bring down the deficit drastically, however depressing the result?

Will he sacrifice long-term goals for short-term palliatives, or vice versa? Mr. Clinton campaigned for years to make the Democratic Party more conservative for a presidential election, and when his time came, the recession made the American people more liberal than they had been for a decade, and he adjusted.

Who is the real Bill Clinton and what does he want? Elect him and find out.

If Mr. Clinton wins, it is because this year he looks better than the devil you know. And because he has promised by body language to move vigorously in the first few months of his administration to do something.

Never mind what. We'll find out in due course.

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