Clinton isn't Ford or Bush, so don't count him out yet



WASHINGTON -- To hear the political prophets of doom tell it, the country is headed for the fourth one-term presidency out of the last five. Gerald Ford in 1976, who served only part of one term, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George Bush in 1992 all were defeated for a second term, and the crepe-hangers seem ready to add Bill Clinton to the list.

Only Ronald Reagan survived a second-term challenge in the 16 years from 1976 through 1992.

It is true that Clinton's polling numbers are discouraging to those who want to see him re-elected in 1996.

But there are significant situational and attitudinal differences between the circumstances that cost Ford, Carter and Bush the presidency and those that exist regarding Clinton today.

Ford, the nation's first unelected vice president, was appointed by President Richard Nixon under the new 25th Amendment after the forced resignation of Spiro Agnew in 1973.

He became the nation's first unelected president when Watergate drove Nixon from the White House.

Ford had never demonstrated a national constituency and was further victimized as a Republican by Watergate and, notably, by his pardon of Nixon in the first significant act of the Ford presidency.

Coming as close to beating Carter as he did was a feat in itself, under the dire political circumstances.

Carter, buffeted at home by rising oil prices, long waiting lines at America's gas pumps, double-digit inflation and interest rates and humiliated in foreign policy by an interminable hostage crisis and failed rescue operation, was a cooked goose by 1979.

He held his infamous "malaise summit" -- a series of Camp David meetings with everybody short of the Rolling Stones -- at which he solicited, and got, a host of opinions of what was wrong with his presidency.

The result was a presidential address, widely known as "the malaise speech," although he never used the word, that charged the American people with "a crisis of confidence . . . that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will."

In other words, Carter was saying, the fault was not with himself but with Americans who had lost heart.

Carter also attacked a favorite target of his successful 1976 campaign -- Washington and the political system -- and said the people "found it to be isolated from the mainstream of our nation's life," conveniently shunting aside the fact that as president he was now an integral part of both. A year later he was easy pickings for Reagan.

Bush did not so much divert the blame for his political decline as ignore it.

Riding high after the triumph of his personally orchestrated multinational reversal of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in the Persian Gulf war, he refused to recognize the domestic political peril in a sinking economy.

Aides who pressed him to speak out about it and go to areas of the country hit hard by recession and unemployment were brushed off in Bush's preference to "govern" from his presidential pedestal, rather than descend to the dirty-fingernails business of politicking.

His aloof attitude was read by too many hurting voters as indifference to their plight, creating the opportunity for Clinton -- with an assist from Ross Perot -- to ride into the White House in 1992 as an agent of change and of caring.

For all of Clinton's political troubles at home and abroad, he does not have the economic woes that helped to do in Carter and Bush.

And, significantly, he appears to be facing those troubles and attempting to deal with them aggressively, which neither of the previous failed presidencies did.

While continuing to pursue health care reform, albeit with much of the actual authorship passing to ranking Democrats in Congress, Clinton is fighting for the rest of his agenda and talking up its most politically salable features, such as the new tough crime provisions and cuts in the federal deficit and bureaucracy.

He plans to campaign vigorously for Democrats in the November midterm elections and in general to strive for a sequel of his 1992 "Comeback Kid" performance after the womanizing and draft stories that nearly buried him.

It would be a mistake to pronounce the political last rites over him just yet.

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