Clinton the politician also must be a statesman ON POLITICS

January 05, 1993|By Lars-Erik Nelson | Lars-Erik Nelson,Tribune Media Services

WASHINGTON -- President Bush ended his term -- and the most painful year of his political life -- in a burst of statesmanly glory, producing a sweeping new arms-control treaty with Russia and highlighting American aid to famine-stricken Somalia.

How odd that a man so comfortable, so knowledgeable, so adroit and graceful on the world stage was intellectually homeless in his own country.

For Mr. Bush, the tragedy of his administration was told in full on a raw, snowy afternoon last Feb. 18. In that day's New Hampshire presidential primary, the first test of the Bush re-election effort, 37 percent of Republicans voted against their president.

Incredibly, Mr. Bush took it as a victory. But to Chris Spirou, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, the message of Feb. 18 was clear: "This president is going to join Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher on the unemployment line for world leaders -- and for the same reason: domestic economic discontent."

In 1992, opinion polls showed that Americans overwhelmingly thought their country was on the wrong track. They worried that no matter how hard they worked, they would not live as well as their parents had lived. They feared that their children, even with expensive educations, would live even worse. They fretted over the high cost of health care, watched foreign competitors gut industry after industry, saw their schools and neighborhoods deteriorate. Mr. Bush seemed oblivious to their concerns.

Instead, he fought for re-election in ways that now seem bizarre. He campaigned with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Major Dad. Vice President Dan Quayle took on TV character Murphy Brown. RTC Mr. Bush turned the Republican Convention over to a right-wing agenda that highlighted the fringes of the Republican Party and suppressed its moderates. While Bill Clinton talked about the challenges facing America, Mr. Bush focused on the amount of fecal coliform bacteria in the Arkansas River.

In a final spasm of desperation, George Herbert Walker Bush -- the born gentleman who prides himself on personal integrity -- presided over a rummaging through Mr. Clinton's confidential State Department files in hopes of proving that his opponent was a traitor.

"A re-election campaign is a referendum on the incumbent," said Republican strategist Ed Rollins. "In 1992, 62 percent of the voters -- including 25 percent of Republicans -- did not want George Bush." They didn't care who won the Cold War, they wanted a leader who understood long-term unemployment benefits.

Voila, Clinton. Now, in the next four years, the roles may reverse. Mr. Clinton has near perfect pitch when he talks about American domestic problems. But he is untested in foreign affairs, and he inherits a far more challenging world than the one that confronted his predecessor.

In 1989, the Soviet Union was more dangerous than its impoverished successor republics are today -- but the Soviet threat was clear and relatively simple, more or less as it had been since the end of World War II. Soviet nuclear weapons were under responsible control. And to deal with Moscow, America had strong alliances, a military machine custom-made to confront the Kremlin's wiles, and thousands of experts -- military, diplomatic and scholarly -- to explain the world.

In 1993, Mr. Clinton faces chaos without parallel in this century. He and his aides will have to redesign the U.S. armed forces. He will have to grasp issues -- like African economic development and European ethnic rivalries -- that were overshadowed by the Cold War.

Mr. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker were hardheaded about the Middle East. It cost them some Jewish votes, but they did launch an Arab-Israeli peace process. Mr. Clinton's instinct will be to side with Israel; it's a politically safe strategy, but it is not enough to solve the Arab-Israeli dispute.

Perhaps Mr. Clinton's toughest lesson -- the one that President Carter never quite mastered -- is that America will not make the world a safer place merely by demonstrating the goodness of our hearts. Mr. Bush was a statesman who was ill at ease with politics. Mr. Clinton is a master politician who now has to show that he is also a statesman.

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