Bill Clinton's next threshold


THIS thing is not over, and the foolishness of today's mantra -- "Bush can't win" -- is matched only by the foolishness of last winter's mantra -- "Clinton can't win" -- incanted, dontcha know, by the very same incanters.

No, the polls are not wrong. President Bush is far behind, and only in the last few days have the president and his advisers indicated that they have even an inkling of what they should do to begin their comeback.

None of which ought to obscure this essential political truth: Bill Clinton now serves the purpose served earlier this year by, in chronological order, Pat Buchanan, Paul Tsongas, Jerry Brown and (especially) Ross Perot. Mr. Clinton is the way to vote "no." Or as the smart guys in Washington would put it, he's the "vehicle of protest."

There being a great deal to protest these days, that's not a bad vehicle to be. A rather substantial majority of people think that the economy is going nowhere, that their family's future seems bleak and that the president neither understands this nor has the faintest idea of what to do about it.

So when a pollster calls asking, "If the election were held today, would you vote for George Bush or Bill Clinton?" most of that majority says -- surprise, surprise -- "Clinton." As mentioned before in this space, if the pollsters added "or are you undecided?" that option would get much more support.

Well, there's a bit more to it than that. During the Democratic convention last month, voters who didn't really know much about Mr. Clinton took a much-discussed "second look" at him. They liked what they saw, and no wonder. They saw a fellow who seemed intelligent, strong and confident. They saw his equally attractive running mate and liked him, too, and therefore liked Governor Clinton all the more for choosing him.

Mr. Clinton, then, crossed an important threshold last month. He became more than just a way to vote "no." He became an appealing way to vote "no," or he wouldn't be getting about 60 percent in the polls.

But he has another threshold to cross. It is one thing to be seen as an appealing fellow. It is quite another to be seen as the president.

It isn't that people don't know what the election is for. But not until later, at least until Labor Day, do they begin to focus on the campaign enough to see it in its context, to understand fully that when they vote in November, they will not just be expressing themselves, venting their spleens or taking out their frustrations. They will be choosing the person who leads their country.

In other words, voters are going to take at least a third look at Mr. Clinton, maybe even a fourth, before they decide whether they want him to be that person.

The president and his advisers were wise to stop trying to outdo Mr.Clinton as an agent of change and instead to try to raise doubts about whether the Democrat was worthy of "trust."

Last week, for instance, the president said Mr. Clinton would cut the defense budget too much. In fact, the difference between how much Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton would reduce Pentagon spending is what the economists would call marginal and the rest of us would call chicken-feed.

No matter. President Bush was trying to plant in the public's mind the notion that perhaps Mr. Clinton could not be trusted to keep the country strong.

Part of Mr. Clinton's problem here is that most voters are only now getting a real sense of him. The Bush campaign knows what it's doing when it calls Mr. Clinton "the failed governor of a small state." By any objective standard, Mr. Clinton is the successful governor of a small state. But a small state it is, and in a country where few non-Californians could name or recognize the governor of the largest state, only a handful of political buffs knew who the governor of Arkansas was until last February, when he was rudely introduced to the electorate via allegations about his personal life.

He had the gumption and the skill to ride out those troubles. And to his political good fortune, the national economy has grown ever weaker under the confused incumbent. So Mr. Clinton looks like an acceptable alternative. He still has to prove that he looks like a president, and until he does -- perhaps in the first debate if there are debates -- the wise citizen will not take seriously the latest mantra.

Jon Margolis writes a column for the Chicago Tribune.

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