CLINTON vs. CLINTON Debates: The president has always found his rivals easier to beat than his own anti-matter; which inspires ambivalence among Americans.; CAMPAIGN 1996


In his second and final debate with Republican challenger Bob Dole, President Clinton resembled the mature Muhammad Ali, almost effortlessly escaping his opponent's desperate lunges and prevailing more with ring savvy than brute strength ++ or blinding speed.

Dole was unable to maintain a compelling or even comprehensible attack against Clinton on the vaunted "character issue," leaving the president to pile up points on bread-and-butter issues such as the recovering economy, the dwindling deficit, defending Medicare and Medicaid, and improving education and job training.

By the end of the debate, Clinton launched into low-key but effective discussions of the thorny social issues that have divided the nation and defeated Democrats since the racial and cultural turmoil of the 1960s.

It was the Democrat Clinton and not the Republican Dole who spoke at the greater length and with the greater passion about the role of religion in American life, the need to restrict "young kids' " TV viewing, and giving "people like you and our families the power to give those values to our children." In his closing statement, Dole was left to address such social issues in legislative shorthand as the constitutional amendment to allow school prayer and a California referendum issue to abolish affirmative action.

For the president who was humiliated by his party's loss of both houses of Congress in the 1994 elections and had to insist on his own "relevance" at a news conference last year, running for re-election wasn't supposed to be this easy.

But Bill Clinton never has much difficulty disposing of his rivals, from George Bush to Newt Gingrich and, now, Bob Dole. His toughest opponent is not his adversaries but his own anti-matter. He generates ambivalence among Americans who recognize him a reflection of the trends transforming this country.

The first president from the baby-boom generation reared in post-World War II prosperity, he is an emblematic figure of our times -- in the words of British journalist Martin Walker, the author of an insightful new Clinton biography, "The President We Deserve."

Born in near-poverty, the son of a widowed mother, Clinton climbed to prominence by amassing elite educational credentials a Georgetown degree, a Rhodes scholarship, a Yale law degree.

Yet, unlike most meritocrats, he went home again -- to the impoverished and racially torn state of Arkansas. In 12 years as governor, he strove to serve his state by healing racial rifts and improving the public schools. As in his youth in a troubled home, Clinton displayed his gifts and goals: to bring people together across racial and cultural divides and lift them up through education and training.

Thus, Clinton presented himself to Americans in 1992 as "the man from Hope" -- a leader who would bring the nation out of recession, end Washington gridlock and deal with the divisions that brought violence to the streets of Los Angeles. Despite attacks on his personal character, Clinton had little difficulty defeating incumbent President Bush.

But, once he became president, Clinton faced his most formidable foe -- himself. For all his charm, Clinton personifies the economic and cultural conflicts of our era.

At a time when all but those with inherited wealth or advanced degrees are losing ground economically, Clinton exemplifies an educated elite that seems to prosper at others' expense. And, with Americans ambivalent about the social changes of the '60s, Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton also symbolized a cultural elite held responsible for social breakdown, from crime and drugs and broken homes, to amoral entertainment.

The cultural imagery of Clinton's first year in office -- nannygates, Hollywood hob-nobbing, high-priced haircuts, youthful staff, gays in the military, and even his support for trade agreements that threatened blue-collar Jobs -- all fed the feeling that he'd lost touch with workaday Americans.

Meanwhile, in the absence of populist explanations of why corporations are downsizing jobs and wages, government looms a target of resentment. Clinton couldn't conceal that he is a believer in government's capacity to do good. And his ambitious health care reform, presented in numbing detail by a horn-rimmed technocrat, seemed less an advance in social insurance than an exercise in social engineering -- so the Democrats took a trouncing in the 1994 congressional elections. And, soon, Clinton enjoyed the advantage of facing a flesh-and-blood opponent again.

Once more, an articulate Southern policy intellectual dominated the nation's airwaves, holding forth on how he would change government and society. Only this time it was newly elected House Speaker Newt Gingrich who was garrulously generating antimatter.

With Americans still anxious about their jobs and living standards, Gingrich's agenda imperiled popular programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, and student loans. Meanwhile, the congressional Republicans' anti-government crusade seemed as insensitive as conventional Democratic liberalism to public anxieties that the social fabric is unraveling.

In the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton re-emerged not as an overly articulate adolescent but as a youthful father figure, condemning extremists, defending adult authority on issues from school uniforms to TV violence, and splitting the difference with social conservatives on issues from school prayer to affirmative action. Clinton emerged as the most sympathetic face of the baby-boom generation, the hard-pressed provider caring for the young and the old.

The congressional battles of 1995 left Clinton well-positioned to take on his inevitable opponent in 1996, Senate Republican leader Dole. At his best, Dole has presented himself as an anti-Clinton -- tested by hard times, military service, and recovery from war wounds, painfully plain-spoken, and awkward at the podium, and, implausibly for a quintessential critic of Washington, a harsh critic of government.

But Dole's nomination acceptance speech, with its image of himself as a "bridge" to a bygone "America that only the unknowing" see as "myth," left him vulnerable to attack as a figure not of middle American integrity but of sheer nostalgia. In his own acceptance speech, Clinton seized Dole's metaphor, presenting himself as a "bridge to the future," not the past.

All this leaves Dole diminished, less than the sum of his own potential appeals or Clinton's antimatter. Still, a re-elected Clinton will once again face the doubts he generates in a nation whose social and economic anxieties are likely to re-emerge after this year's campaign becomes a hazy memory.

Can Clinton find a way to lift living standards and heal the divides among a comfortable elite, an anxious middle class, and the increasingly isolated and alienated poor? The president who presents himself as "a bridge to the future" will need all of his talents of persuasion and conciliation to be, in the words of that baby-boomer anthem, "a bridge over troubled waters" as well.

David Kusnet was chief speech writer for President Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is the author of "Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties" and a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute.

Pub Date: 10/20/96

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