Clinton must demonstrate he's a 'different Democrat' POLITICAL COMMENTARY

November 04, 1992|By JACK GERMOND

WASHINGTON -- The dimensions of Democrat Bill Clinton's defeat of President Bush point to a sea change in American politics.

How long it will endure may depend on how effectively Mr. Clinton fulfills his self-described role as "a different kind of Democrat" in the White House.

In its broadest terms, the message in the 1992 election returns is that Americans are willing to try something entirely different -- complete Democratic control of the federal government -- after 12 years of Republican stewardship in the White House.

And they are willing to take that risk even if they have the reservations about their new leader that they have expressed so clearly all year.

There were, of course, many elements in the Democratic landslide -- the parlous condition of the economy, Mr. Bush's failure to react to the national concerns over domestic issues, an apparent reaction against the kind of negative campaigning on which the Republicans relied so heavily toward the end of the campaign, and the independent candidacy of Ross Perot.

But the most important probably was the perception of the Arkansas governor as more interested in effecting the change he promised than in splitting hairs on social issues.

Mr. Clinton won not only because he was not Mr. Bush but also because he was not seen as another Walter F. Mondale or another Michael S. Dukakis.

The evidence of that different perception was clear both in the South, where Mr. Clinton cracked the usual Republican lock by capturing close to 40 percent of the white vote, 10 percent more than the last two Democratic nominees. And it was equally obvious in the big industrial states of the Northeast and Midwest, where so-called Reagan Democrats returned to their party by almost 3-to-2.

Exit polls showed that Mr. Clinton led Mr. Bush nationally by 42 to 39 percent among white voters, the first Democrat to lead among whites since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

The image of Mr. Clinton as "different" was one the Arkansas governor promoted assiduously throughout his campaign -- talking about the "responsibility" of welfare recipients, deliberately distancing himself from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his liberalism, standing apart from organized labor on some key issues.

If there was a secret to Mr. Clinton's success yesterday, it was the dogged way he returned time and again to his basic theme of "change" whatever the distractions of other issues or outside events.

That tenacity allowed him to survive the New Hampshire primary February -- he finished a respectable second to Paul E. Tsongas -- and to fend off the attacks on his personal history throughout the general election campaign.

But Mr. Clinton had important help from other quarters.

The most obvious came from the willingness of liberal Democrats to swallow a candidate they would not have accepted in other years -- one who, for example, supports the death penalty.

This year the first imperative was to seize the opportunity presented by the condition of the economy and win the election.

The Democrats also profited clearly from the consistent misjudgments and missteps by the president and his campaign.

From the outset, Mr. Bush -- basking in the glow of the approval ratings from the Persian Gulf War -- never seemed to grasp the depth of the concern over the economic issue, insisting for a year that the reports of "gloom and doom" were exaggerated and thus suggesting his own lack of sensitivity to the issue.

Beyond that, the president seemed caught in a political time warp that had him believing he could win the election of 1992 as he did the campaign of 1988 by relying on media events and issues such as "family values" and "trust" and "character" rather than concentrating on providing a coherent and persuasive economic program.

Exit polls taken yesterday found the first three concerns of the electorate to be the economy, the federal deficit and health care -- not "family values," not Mr. Clinton's history in evading the draft and not even the nation's security.

Although the impact was not entirely clear, it also appeared that the independent candidacy of Ross Perot contributed to Mr. Bush's defeat in two different ways.

First, it was clear that the Perot vote was large enough in some states -- including Texas and Florida -- to make the campaign competitive when it might not otherwise have been.

There were some smaller states Mr. Clinton won with relatively narrow margins -- Kentucky for example -- in which the support for Mr. Perot almost certainly was decisive because of the votes drawn away from Mr. Bush.

Beyond that, however, Mr. Perot helped change the atmosphere for the campaign with his single-minded focus on the federal deficit.

Although neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Clinton ever dealt with the deficit question with total candor or thoroughness, the injection of that issue into such prominence helped create a climate in which the questions of personal peccadillos seemed trivial.

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