IN THE SWEEP of American history there has never been a tableau quite like it. At either end of Pennsylvania Avenue at the Capitol in the Senate majority leader's office and at the White House in the Oval Office the two pre-ordained presidential candidates are launching their campaigns by tending to the nitty-gritty of governing.
There have been presidents a-plenty who have sought re-election. But until Bob Dole locked up the Republican nomination this week, there has never been a Senate majority leader at the head of the out-party's ticket.
This situation is bound to change the dynamics of the election. As office-holders, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Dole cannot escape their constitutional duties. Mr. Clinton has to execute, Mr. Dole to legislate and while their every maneuver will be tuned to November they still have a shared responsibility to keep the government running. The British parliamentary system it is not, but it is probably the closest thing to it in the annals of American politics.
This week Mr. Clinton issued an official budget for fiscal 1997 even as he and Mr. Dole continued to trade and bicker over a fiscal 1996 budget still unpassed. They apparently made little progress, but at least they were doing what they're paid for rather than exchanging campaign bromides and broadsides.
Which side gains trom this unprecedented circumstance? For the moment President Clinton seems to have the upper hand tactically. Knowing that the Republican Congress has been blamed far more than the Democratic White House for a budget gridlock that has twice shut down the government, he has rebuffed one GOP spending concession after another. Senator Dole would seem to be in a bind angering hard-right conservatives in the House who consider him too moderate yet getting the back of the hand from the president.
But these are early times. The Kansas senator still can force Mr. Clinton to be a "the veto president" by sending him one tough GOP measure after another. Or he can play the statesman, seeking accommodation with a president intent only on political advantage. By choosing to remain as majority leader, Mr. Dole has also secured for himself a platform for keeping himself at the forefront of the national agenda until the party conventions in August.
Perhaps it is too much to hope that this unusual Pennsylvania Avenue campaign will lead to a real dialogue by two men steeped in the art of government. But it should. Both major parties share an interest in bolstering their dismal standing with the American public.
Pub Date: 3/21/96