SO MANY people are now running for president that it makes your head spin. Republicans have candidates you've never heard of. Every time the newspapers print another list of Republican candidates I examine it warily to make sure I'm not on it.
There are other amazing things about Bill Clinton. For instance, he started running for a second term even before he was inaugurated for the first.
The amazing thing here is, he didn't seem to have any fixed ideas about what he wanted to do with his first term. Was he keeping them a secret so he could surprise us in his second term?
As everybody knows, he started running for president when he was a high schooler. You'd think by the time he finished college a man who started running in high school would have exciting ideas of what to do in his first term.
Well, you'd think that and I'd think that, but maybe shrewd politicians think more subtly than we do. A shrewd operator might have decided while still in college that revealing his vision thing in his first White House term would leave him with no campaign material to use when running for his second term.
I don't say this is how the Clinton mind works, and I don't say there is anything ill advised about keeping your vision thing a secret until the second term. It would take unmitigated gall to criticize the tactics of a man whose tactics have already won him one term, and my gall is mitigated.
The Republican candidates, or at least those I can keep in mind, have unmitigated gall galore and incredibly clear vision things.
I keep them sorted out by imagining the kind of country each would bring us.
Under President Newt Gingrich, for instance, I see a lot of balloons. I mean big brightly colored balloons that use hot gas to raise baskets of people into the sky so high. Mr. Gingrich, you see, is a romantic and a dreamer and a devotee of science.
Dreams, romance, science -- the three add up to beautiful balloons, at least for those who can afford balloons. Under President Noot I see Americans silently filling the air high enough above the countryside where they cannot see recalcitrant idlers and moochers left behind because they are too shiftless to afford their own balloons.
President Pete Wilson's America would be quite different. No balloons in Wilsonian America. They would make it too easy for foreigners to cross our borders at times when Americans have no need for cheap foreign labor to take jobs too awful to interest our own citizens.
Mr. Wilson is a Californian. So I see Congress in permanent recess, since all government would be conducted by incessant referendum and initiative elections. We'd be so busy voting that not even the privileged classes would have time to weep about the unfair discrimination they suffer because of affirmative action.
President Pat Buchanan governs a Fortress America. Minding our own business. That world out there with its troublesome, obnoxious, out-of-control billions of people -- that's not our problem, my fellow Americans. (Lots of high-flown, top-drawer, pulse-pounding oratory in the Buchanan administration.)
Inside Fortress America, I see everybody going to church. A Christian church. Getting the feel of the Ten Commandments. Not turning the other cheek though, no matter what the Gospel recommends, to those alien cultures with which we are at war, because when you are at war, my fellow etceteras, you have to etcetera.
Who else? Yes, Sen. Phil Gramm. I don't exactly see a President Gramm Administration. I hear it. And I don't want to hear it. It is an America in which millions of people shout, "Turn off that TV!" the instant President Gramm starts to announce a 14-point program for soaking the poor so the rich, by getting richer, can help the poor find honest work one of these days.
It's Mr. Gramm's voice that's driving his America up the wall, not his programs. Few Americans mind soaking the poor, but the sound of fingernails raking tin is something else.
"What about Bob Dole?" you ask. I see a Bob Dole administration which has Americans saying, "Well, who else was there?"
Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist.