Has the above headline replaced 1992's "It's the economy, stupid" as Bill Clinton's 1996 campaign touchstone? It's beginning to sound like it.
At a high school last Wednesday he said, "Our nation faces two great challenges; first of all, to restore the American dream of opportunity and the American tradition of responsibility. And second, to bring our country together amid all of our diversity in a stronger community so that we can find common ground and move forward together. In my first two years as president, I worked harder on the first question -- how to get the economy going. . . . But I have come to believe that unless we can solve the second problem we'll never really solve the first. I have decided that I should spend some more time and some conversations about things Americans care a lot about and that they're deeply divided over." Then he defended religion in public places -- including specifically schools.
"The First Amendment," he said emphatically, "does not -- I will say again does not convert our schools into religion-free zones."
Many members of the the liberal wing of his party, who barely had got their breath back from a Clinton speech a week earlier at Georgetown University, had their wind knocked out again. At Georgetown he had urged Democrats and Republicans to drop "extremism of rhetoric" and "excessive partisanship" and join him (implicitly in the reasonable middle) in an attempt to rescue "at risk. . . middle class dreams and middle class values."
The president calls this "common ground," and if he can carry his plan through, it could also be the high ground in the 1996 campaign. The high ground strategically. The middle is the place to be in two-party politics. He wasn't judged to be there in the first part of his term, but that doesn't necessarily mean he can't claim it in the last part. He has demonstrated such skills before.
Win or lose, a campaign focused more on common ground and common values could be a good thing for this country. For example, the president's comments on religion and schools included this plea: "Even though the schools can't advocate religious beliefs, they should teach mainstream values and virtues. The fact that some of these values happen to be religious values does not mean that they cannot be taught in our schools." We think that makes sense. At the very least his speech sets a proper tone for a civil discussion of what has in the past been debated uncivilly.
The presidency has long been a "bully pulpit" for those who have the political skills and desire to use it as such. In recent weeks Bill Clinton has sounded very much like a president -- and candidate -- who fits that description.