SO THE CAMPAIGN begins with the Democrats sounding like Republicans and the Republicans like pre-Gingrich Reaganites. Bill Clinton and Bob Dole have imposed party unity and discipline and headed for the center.
The only thing lacking is credibility.
Mr. Dole is an anti-government, anti-spending, anti-abortion conservative who may have been pragmatic about getting things done in the Senate but has no qualms about the doctrinaire party platform he does not admit to having read.
The only part of his program that on the documented record he disbelieves is supply-side economics -- the tax-cut priority he embraced just before taking on its leading proponent, Jack Kemp, as second fiddle.
Mr. Clinton, however, is a traditional liberal who believes in big government to solve problems but understands there are limits and that fear of crime is in the same bag of middle-class anxieties as job loss, paying for college, health care and old-age security.
Insincerity in the chorus
When he joined the chorus for a tax cut, it was with an insincerity matching that of four years ago.
On fiscal theory alone, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Dole are both traditional conservatives. They believe that routine deficits must be ended and government spending for debt service reduced before voters can be rewarded with either program improvements or tax relief.
They also evidently believe that candor along those lines would only lose elections.
The clue to believing in Mr. Dole's true conservatism and Mr. Clinton's essential liberalism is the lack of defections of true believers from either camp.
Ralph Reed and the Buchanan siblings and Speaker Gingrich are true-blue loyal. So are Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson on the other side.
No bleating about refusing to be taken for granted any longer. No carping about the non-choice between Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee.
They must know that their nominee has not sold out to the ideological opposition, but rather has only pretended to go halfway.
They must also believe, and passionately, that whatever their own guy's inadequacies, the peril to the nation from the election of the other would be dire.
And however centrist Mr. Clinton and Mr. Dole may convince themselves for the moment that they have become, they both have coattails.
They both urge election of a Senate and House majority of their own party. They both mean it.
Keeping the Republicans in control of both houses under the aggressive leadership of Newt Gingrich would mean a right-wing agenda. That gang would dig out the unread party platform and say that they meant it and that every- one had been duly warned, which is certainly true.
Retaining Mr. Clinton and giving Democrats control of both houses would produce a liberal agenda mocking the convention's centrism.
Grizzled old Democrats of the left would chair the key House committees. They would produce a program well to the left of Mr. Clinton's campaign, mirror image of Gingrichism.
A distrusting electorate
Actually, the American electorate has distrusted both parties for a long time.
The constant recent division of party control between executive and legislative branches, so frustrating to both, has not resulted from voter muddle-headedness.
The voters diluted power and must have intended the paralysis, or at least the caution and compromise, that resulted.
So, while it is common to predict now that Congress will move back in a Democratic direction with the president re-elected in November, barring some major national or personal misfortune (the downfall of Dick Morris hardly suffices), it would be foolhardy to predict that a single party will capture the presidency and both houses of Congress in November.
But the attempt matters. The election really does make a difference.
No matter what the nominees say, neither is centrist. The only centrists in sight are the majority of voters.
Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 8/31/96