The Frivolity of Presidential Politics


Paris. -- Surely I am not the only one to feel shame at the mixture of grovel and bluster with which President Bush has approached Japan? Can one imagine any past American president dealing with a foreign power in quite this way?

Unfortunately Mr. Bush is not unrepresentative of current attitudes in the Congress and in American business. Japan is held on the one hand to behave unfairly on trade, but on the other is begged to limit its competition with the United States and to grant exceptions for American inadequacies and the American failure to produce products able to successfully compete with those of Japan.

There certainly are issues of protectionism to debate with Japan, but it is not Japanese protectionism which is responsible for the uncompetitiveness of large sectors of American industry. This industrial failure is the most widely acknowledged of the handicaps with which the United States has entered 1992. In principle it ought to be the least of the country's major problems, since competitiveness is a product of good management, driven by market forces, and under the market threat that exists today American managers have effectively the choice between reform and bankruptcy.

The second great obstacle the U.S. confronts is stalemated government, producing widening voter alienation. This is extremely difficult to change since the malfunction of government reinforces the inclination of American voters to elect divided governments, giving executive power to one party and creating an opposite majority in the legislature.

When in these circumstances government fails to produce programs which give people confidence in the capacity of their government to bring constructive change to individual lives, voters ask why they should vote. Or why they should vote for anyone who does not attack the system itself, as in different ways David Duke and Jerry Brown are doing.

However, the third obstacle is the most serious. It is the frivolity of modern American presidential campaigns together with the linked impoverishment of American political debate. That debate now revolves around certain highly emotionalized and media-tized themes: tax reduction, government spending (or the lack of spending on health insurance and social measures), race (in various guises, from university "political correctness" down to Willie Horton), and a Japanese "threat" which is actually largely the product of the American nation's own industrial and business failures.

The candidates for the presidency are trapped in this largely sterile debate by media pressures and the domination of campaigns by spot broadcast advertising, certainly, but also because none seems willing to make an intellectual break with the current debate. They lack the personal authority to make such a break -- an authority bestowed by individual accomplishment or an original mind. The present challengers to Mr. Bush appear to be qualified chiefly by their ambition and willingness to campaign. None previously had a national reputation of consequence.

The party system in the past (in those famous "smoke-filled rooms" which reform and television have done away with) could select national candidates of independent weight. The parties headed off the incapable, the irresponsible, the crooks, the womanizers. There was much wrong with the old system, but the system we have now effectively limits the presidential race of the party out of office to media-attractive political careerists with the time and money to devote the better part of a year (or more) of their lives to primary campaigns. This automatically excludes people who have serious responsibilities and a life and career outside politics.

Mr. Bush at least had wide appointive government experience before he campaigned for the presidency. However, he has always been struck silent with "the vision thing," which betrays the lack of an ambition in his presidency larger than that of mere possession of the office.

The Democrats who want to be president have yet to explain why the voter should want Bill Clinton, Robert Kerrey, Tom Harkin or Douglas Wilder to govern the country. None offers a comprehensive policy stance that gives evidence of having been thought through. None seems to believe in his program firmly enough to defy polls and political expedience. The "vision thing" is their problem too.

The country's difficulties are interactive. The mediocrity of candidates and the media-tization of campaigns has meant that fundamental issues and reform possibilities are largely excluded from the national agenda. That contributes to the system's stagnation and feeds voter alienation. We find ourselves with presidents subservient to polls and the television image, who deal with the nation's real problems by blaming them on other countries.

So long as this goes on, the American course will continue downward. The risk is that we will perpetuate the national decline already begun, and see political life increasingly

embittered and fragmented as a result. This happened in France in the 1920s and 30s -- and was cured there only by the war. Mr. Bush's conduct in Japan is merely a sign of our problem.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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