Clinton skips Morris episode, stays focused on big picture President highlights accomplishments, issues

Democratic Convention

Campaign 1996

August 30, 1996|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CHICAGO -- Presidential acceptance speeches always have a ritualistic quality. Nominees use them to try to rally both the party activists in the convention hall and the television audience for the campaign ahead.

But last night President Clinton faced a different pressure: the need to demonstrate that his campaign is about big issues and not the transitory sensation of the Dick Morris case.

The Morris episode may have made those Democrats gathered in the United Center more sensitized to his message. For 12 hours, all over Chicago, they had been venting their frustration about the timing of the Morris disclosure and its possible distracting effect on the Clinton message.

But the president focused on the accomplishments of his first four years in the White House and, most to the point, his plans for another four years in office.

The contrast with the acceptance speech Bob Dole delivered in San Diego two weeks ago was clear and deliberate. Where the Republican nominee offered himself as a bridge to the past, Clinton looked ahead.

"With all due respect," he said, "we do not need to build a bridge to the past. We need to build a bridge to the future."

"Tonight, let us resolve," he told cheering delegates, "to build that bridge to the 21st century, to meet our challenges, protect our basic values and prepare our people for the future. Let us build a bridge to help parents raise their children, to help young people and adults get the education and training they need, to make citizens feel safer on our streets, to help Americans succeed at home and at work."

Although Clinton offered a predictable laundry list of the achievements of his first term and advanced some relatively modest specific plans for a second, his emphasis lay on the "values" issues he has stressed for the past 10 days -- largely on the advice of the now-departed Morris.

If the government does what it should, the president argued, "every 8-year-old will be able to read, every 12-year-old will be able to log on to the Internet, every 18-year-old will be able to go to college."

Demonstrating the same fealty to polling data that Dole showed before him, Clinton returned repeatedly to the issues most sensitive with the electorate today and those on which congressional Republicans are most vulnerable -- education, the environment and protection of the elderly.

"Tonight," he said, "let us proclaim to the American people, we will balance the budget. And let us also proclaim that we will do it in a way that preserves Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment. As long as I am president, I will never allow cuts that devastate education for our children, pollute our environment, end the guarantee of health care under Medicaid or violate our duty to our parents under Medicare. Never."

The president was not only restrained in his criticism of the loyal opposition, he was pointed in promising a positive campaign. This, too, was a reflection of polling data that shows voters are quick to react against what they see as negative politics.

Clinton said he inevitably would draw comparisons between himself and Dole and expected the same from the Republicans.

"But," he said, "I will not attack them personally or permit others to do it in this party if I can prevent it. This must be a campaign of ideas, not a campaign of insults."

One of the comparisons Clinton allowed himself was a reference to the Republican budget strategy that shut down the government twice last year -- a strategy that backfired resoundingly with the voters.

"And as long as I am president," he said, "I will never allow the Republican leadership to use the blackmail of a threat of a government shutdown to force these burdens on the American people."

Similarly, Clinton was restrained in his rebuttal to Dole's call for a 15 percent tax cut without a corresponding specific reduction in spending, describing it as a "risky $550 billion tax scheme" that would stop economic growth, raise the deficit and risk another recession such as he traced to similar policies under President Ronald Reagan.

"Do we really want to make that mistake again?" Clinton asked, armed as he was with polling data that shows doubts about Dole's economic proposals have been rising steadily in the past 10 days at about 1 percentage point per day.

Clinton's own tax proposals were both more modest and targeted, conditions that polls suggest make them more plausible to the electorate.

The most striking evidence of the hand of Morris in the speech came in Clinton's repeated references to America being on "the right track" into the next century. Within the White House, Morris had been emphasizing a recent development in polling data -- a finding that the number of Americans who believed the country is "on the right track" has suddenly jumped from 36 percent to 44 percent and, for the first time since Clinton took office, exceeds the number who believe the country is "on the wrong track."

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