WASHINGTON -- It is not surprising that Bill Clinton has been tiptoeing around the race issue in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots. If a genuine race question develops in the 1992 presidential election campaign, the Democratic nominee will be confronting just the kind of presidential campaign he had hoped to avoid this year.
Before he was so rudely interrupted by Gennifer Flowers and the like, the Arkansas governor had a design for defeating President Bush that was at least tentatively convincing to even the most skeptical political professionals. Clinton would redefine his party so that it could no longer be depicted as the creature of what the Republicans call "special interests" by aligning it with the broad taxpaying middle class. He would exploit the weakness in the economy to expose the vacuousness of President Bush on domestic affairs in general.
The first imperative would be to focus the voters' attention on their serious concerns and the failure of the Bush administration, and eight years of Ronald Reagan earlier, to deal with those problems in any serious way. As the early stages of the campaign demonstrated, there were many such issues -- most notably jobs, health care and education -- in which voters were intensely interested.
The focus on these issues has been blurred somewhat by the past two months of alarums and excursions over the personal history of candidate Clinton.
But the intriguing thing is that, despite these diversions, the Democrats have succeeded in at least part of their design by painting a picture of George Bush as an ineffectual and disinterested bystander on domestic questions. The most recent national survey shows more people trust Clinton than Bush to do the right thing for both the middle class and the poor.
Thus, the Democrats might have some reason to nourish a small flame of optimism even with their likely nominee carrying a heavy load of political baggage and the cloud of Ross Perot hanging menacingly over their heads.
But the race issue is ultimately threatening because, in itself, it could turn the campaign into what the Republicans define as another test of "values" rather than a referendum on George Bush's performance in office.
That is precisely what happened in 1988. Stuck for an answer other than "no new taxes," candidate Bush made the election a choice of the "values" of someone -- Michael S. Dukakis -- whose patriotism was questionable because he wouldn't insist that the pledge of allegiance to the flag be recited in every classroom and who was so soft on crime he allowed convicted murderers to get a weekend pass and commit new depredations.
Clinton already has demonstrated he will not turn the other cheek if similar tactics are used against him. But the danger for any Democrat is that the party's commitment to its most loyal constituency, black voters, can be depicted as evidence Democrats are more committed to affirmative action and spending on social programs for the disadvantaged than to the burdens on the taxpaying middle class.
If that happens in coming up with a response to Los Angeles, Clinton will forfeit his chance of recapturing the critical constituency of "Reagan Democrats," culturally conservative working-class voters whose concern about blacks is extremely limited. If that happens, the issue will become Clinton's "values" rather than Bush's record.
It may not happen. By the time of the fall campaign, the attention given the riots in Los Angeles may have turned elsewhere several different times. But it is plain there is reason for Clinton to step carefully these days.
It would be more reassuring if candidates could simply "do the right thing" on the issues raised by Los Angeles. But, as the White House keeps reminding us ad nauseum, "this is a political year," as if there weren't political content in every decision made every day of every four-year term.
And, besides, who knows precisely what "the right thing" would be? The one certainty is that playing cheap politics with race is precisely the wrong thing, even if, unhappily for the Democrats, it is the most effective politics in a society whose racial divisions have been so clearly defined in the past week.