The new landscape

Anthony Lewis

November 10, 1992|By Anthony Lewis

IN victory, magnanimity." So Winston Churchill advised. But for Bill Clinton it will have to be watchful magnanimity.

Anyone who thinks the gracious concession speeches on Election Night presaged an Era of Good Feeling for the Clinton presidency -- a suspension of partisanship -- has a short memory. To win, Mr. Clinton had to survive an exceptionally vicious campaign against him. Republicans, embittered and divided, are not going to be kind and gentle to the Clinton administration.

To be effective in the White House, Mr. Clinton will have to win the confidence of not just the 43 percent who voted for him but of many of the other 57 percent. The Republican tactic will surely be to destroy that confidence by personal attack. That is the game Newt Gingrich knows, and it is the one George Bush played in the campaign.

(Was there, incidentally, an inadvertent note of guilt about the nature of his campaign in President Bush's concession speech? I thought so. He said, "We have fought the good fight . . . and I believe we have upheld the honor of the presidency." It was as if he were trying to reassure himself.)

The hard part of Mr. Clinton's confidence-building will be the central promise he made to the voters: to rebuild the economy. It will take years, even with the wisest policy, to correct the distortions of the Reagan-Bush years and cope with the grim international trends.

What he can do on the economic front, in his first days as president, is demonstrate the caring and the commitment to action that the people felt were missing in George Bush. But his task is complicated by the Perot factor: the fact that Ross Perot won a remarkable 19 percent of the vote on one main argument, that we must eliminate the budget deficit.

If Mr. Clinton actually made the brutal spending cuts that the Perot vision requires, the economic effects would be devastating. The recession would worsen sharply. The Clinton idea, rather, is to stimulate the economy first and then, as it picks up, move toward deficit reduction.

Mr. Clinton can adopt one Perot theme, the reform of campaign financing. The only thing is that real reform will also have to reach the Perot phenomenon itself. It is wrong that one person can spend $60 million in the last month of a presidential race to flood the voters with propaganda. Careful legislation could persuade the Supreme Court to think again about its 1976 decision that limits on political spending violate constitutional guarantees of free speech.

The area ripe for early action by Congress and Mr. Clinton is social. Within months legislation should end the federal ban on fetal tissue research and the abortion gag rule. A family leave law will be enacted.

Those so-called social issues touch the most sensitive area of division in the Republican Party. The great struggle shaping up pits the Rev. Pat Robertson and the religious right against conservatives who want government to stay out of such matters, leaving them to private decision.

Mr. Robertson has achieved great power in the party. His Christian Coalition mailed out 40 million voter guides. (Why is the Christian Coalition tax-exempt? There is a question overripe for inquiry.)

On the other hand, the Robertson forces' domination of the Republican convention this year offended many voters. Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts warned on Election Night against the Republican Party's following the Democratic example of 20 years ago and moving toward the extreme.

The campaign, on reflection, offers one clear guideline to Mr. Clinton as president: Play it straight.

Some of us thought Americans had become so cynical that they did not care what politicians said. But it turned out that dissembling hurt.

Nearly half the voters, asked after they voted, said they thought Mr. Clinton was lying about his draft record in the Vietnam War. But 70 percent thought Bush was lying about his role in the Iran-contra affair, and that really hurt him on Election Day.

Craig Fuller, Mr. Bush's chief of staff as vice president, said on ABC's "Nightline" a month ago that the evidence of Mr. Bush's falsity in saying he was "out of the loop" on Iran-contra was irrelevant. "It didn't matter in 1988," Mr. Fuller said, "and it won't matter in 1992."

But it did.

Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.