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The awesome power of incumbency

THE INCUMBENT in any democratic election for chief executive has powers the challenger lacks. Chiefly visible in several countries now is the power to take on the coloration of his adversary until the election is over.

President Clinton shows this when he endorses such Republican initiatives as mandatory education for welfare mothers and a tax credit for adoptions, and when he talks as tough about China as Sen. Bob Dole does.

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When a measure is thrown up for him to lose popularity vetoing, he may just sign and claim credit for it.

This applies only to ideas that do not violate positions he has staked out as basic. Republicans can still maneuver him to a veto, as in their bill limiting product liability, but at risk to their own popularity. Senator Dole is dragging his party to center ground, only to find Mr. Clinton in possession.

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In Russia, President Boris Yeltsin heads toward the presidential election June 16 as underdog to the Communist Party's Gennady Zyuganov. Mr. Yeltsin knows what appeals to the Communist faithful and to Russian nationalists.

Getting tough with Chechnya was meant to steal nationalists' and Communists' thunder. It backfired and Mr. Yeltsin has been trying to confuse the issue since.

Mr. Yeltsin is the champion of getting along with the West, especially with the United States and the International Monetary Fund. That's why such liberals as former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar support him.

Act like a Communist

So Mr. Yeltsin can act until June 16 as Mr. Zyuganov. That may explain the crises of relations with Britain and Estonia.

Mr. Zyuganov for his part can assure the West he is no ogre, but he can only talk. Mr. Yeltsin, to the extent he controls the government agencies, can act.

Mr. Yeltsin may not succeed, of course, and as of the moment has not. His last great service to Russian democracy may be to depart gracefully. Incumbents can and do lose. President Bush frittered away the power of incumbency in the 1992 election, a lesson not lost on Mr. Clinton.

The most audacious example of using the power is in Israel where Prime Minister Shimon Peres, the apostle of peace, is acting like a Likud Party warrior until the May 29 election.

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The closure of the Palestinian border in response to Hamas suicide bombers punishes and alienates scores of thousands of Palestinians who did not do it.

Mr. Peres can attend to repairing that damage in June, but only if he is still around.

The destruction of southern Lebanon in response to Hezbollah rockets dispossessed hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who had not done it, and killed hundreds of innocents. This may be in keeping with the policy ideas of the Likud opposition party, but not those of Mr. Peres.

As a result, Mr. Peres is winning the grudging respect of those Israelis who has feared him soft on security, and has left Likud candidate Benjamin Netanyahu sputtering approval. Dovish Israelis appalled at what he has done have no recourse but to vote for Mr. Peres, who alone would revert to being himself after May 29.

Israel has committed atrocities in the cause of peace, cynically designed to win Mr. Peres the election that terrorists were cynically contriving for him to lose. He would try to complete the peace; Mr. Netanyahu would not.

So Mr. Peres is ruling as Mr. Netanyahu, temporarily, in hopes of ruling him out permanently. Rarely have cynicism and idealism been so intertwined.

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In the U.S., the stakes are not so high. But Mr. Clinton is going to behave as Mr. Dole until November in the greater cause of being himself afterward. It may not work, but winning elections is what Mr. Clinton does best.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 5/11/96


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