Voters scream out, and Clinton beats Bush by listening

July 17, 1993

Sun political columnists Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover have written their fourth book on a presidential campaign. Excerpts from "Mad As Hell: Revolt at the Ballot Box, 1992," which was released Thursday, are being printed today, tomorrow and Monday in The Sun. Today's installment is on the crucial second presidential debate. Tomorrow: Bill Clinton's decision on what to do about the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. Monday: The people speak up.

The popular cliche about Bush throughout the campaign -- embraced and spread at every opportunity by the Clinton campaign -- was that "George Bush doesn't get it." Democrats never ceased telling voters that he didn't "get it" about the existence, depth and duration of the recession; about the hardships of daily life for people whose lifestyle was light-years removed from his own.

When they scanned the newspapers while standing in unemployment lines or checking the want ads, they would see pictures of the president riding in a golf cart or on his boat at Kennebunkport, Maine. On the evening television news they would see him repeatedly at play when they were trying to find work, or fearful of losing the work they had. And when they read about how Bush had gone into a supermarket and didn't know what the price scanner at the checkout counter was all about, the incident only confirmed for millions that "George Bush just doesn't get it" when it came to the trials of their everyday lives.

On the other hand, Ross Perot for all his wealth was a walking man-in-the-street, and every sentence and sound bite he uttered established that identity. (In explaining himself, he would tell his listeners "I can't sound-bite it for you" -- and then do precisely that.)

As for Bill Clinton, he knew what it took to persuade voters that he understood the condition of their lives. "One of the virtues about being governor of a small state -- both of my opponents have made fun of that," he said, "is that the people know me and I know them. And every now and then my wife and I just get out and go to the grocery store and just talk to people in the grocery store, and walk up and down the aisles and listen."

In the second debate in Richmond, a questioner perhaps underscored even more the gap between Bush and the average voter. Marisa Hall, a 25-year-old single woman, was concerned that the candidates were out of touch with the trials that everyday people like herself were facing in the recession. There was a lot of talk from them about how the mushrooming national debt was undermining the nation's well-being, but she wasn't getting a sense of what it meant in terms of the individual.

"How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives?" she asked. "And if it hasn't, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what's ailing them?"

Perot quickly responded that the national debt "caused me to disrupt my private life and my business to get involved in this activity. That's how much I care about it." He noted that "I came from a very modest background" and that "as lucky as I've been," he owed it to the country's children and his own to try to do something about the sick economy.

Moderator Carole Simpson, of ABC News, then turned to the president.

"Well," he said, "I think the national debt affects everybody."

"You personally," Simpson said, trying to nail him down in behalf of the questioner.

Bush seem confused. "Obviously it has a lot to do with interest rates," he offered.

Simpson interjected again: "She's saying, 'You personally. You on a personal basis. How has it affected you . . . personally?' "

Bush: "I'm sure it has. I love my grandchildren. . . . I want to think that they're going to be able to afford an education. I think that that's an important part of being a parent. If the question -- maybe I -- get it wrong."

'Help me with question'

Looking at Marisa Hall, the president asked her: "Are you suggesting that if somebody has means, that the national debt doesn't affect them? . . . I'm not sure I get -- help me with the question and I'll try to answer it."

"Well," the woman said, "I've had friends that have been laid off from jobs. . . . I know people who cannot afford to pay the mortgage on their homes, their car payment. I have personal problems with the national debt. But how has it affected you, and if you have no experience in it, how can you help us, if you don't know what we're feeling?"

Bush still seemed puzzled. Simpson stepped in again. "I think she means," she said, "more the recession -- the economic problems today the country is facing, rather than the deficit."

The president finally got the idea -- in his fashion. "Well, listen," he said, "you ought to be in the White House for a day and hear what I hear and see what I see, and read the mail I read and touch the people that I touch from time to time."

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