FOR A HARD-EYED insider view of the Clinton presidency, consider this comment by White House aide George Stephanopoulos: "The system doesn't allow anything of any scale to be achieved. Grand ambitions are much easier to stop than they are to start. That was the case with health care in 1993, and it was the case with the Republican budget in 1995."
So if President Clinton is incapable of achieving "grand ambitions," what is the outlook for Bob Dole if he attains the Oval Office?
Probably the same. Maybe less. When historians look back on this election, they are likely to be impressed by two developments: 1) The adroit shift of the Democratic Party to the center while the Republican Party remained in the clutches of activists on the right, and 2) the nation's obsessive self-absorption in domestic affairs even as the world grew more turbulent.
In keeping with a practice dating back to 1984, The Sun will not endorse either candidate for the presidency. Our mission is to inform, discuss and remain independent in pursuit of a goal set out in our first issue 160 years ago: "The common good." But this in no way inhibits our political commentary. Instead, it liberates.
William Jefferson Clinton is indeed a protean character, an elusive but embracing personality whose conduct in office alternately dismays and reassures. His grasp on power is more sharply honed than when he arrived from Arkansas four years ago. His technique in the art of projecting or manipulating ideas, or in maneuvering for partisan advantage, has reached levels that leave his opponents foundering.
If he is to become the first Democratic president since Franklin D. Roosevelt re-elected to a full term, it will be in large measure because his tenure coincided with an uplift in the economy and a gradual public acceptance of this fact. Yet the personal element cannot be denied. His foibles reflect some values (or lack thereof) in American culture, which may explain his popularity among voters who do not quite trust him.
Robert Joseph Dole's political space is more limited. He does not control the GOP the way Mr. Clinton, in his centrist mode, has brought even Democratic liberals to heel. The Republican agenda in the age of Newt Gingrich, Pat Buchanan and the Christian Coalition is not the Dole agenda; to the extent he adjusts he sullies his reputation for consistency and reliability.
Mr. Stephanopoulos' bracketing of Democrats' defeat on health care with rejection of the 1995 Republican budget is instructive. Both were "grand ambitions" gone awry. Whereas Mr. Clinton, or at least his wife, was the undoubted promoter of the ill-starred plan to guarantee health insurance for all working citizens, Senator Dole was only a supporting player (and a reluctant one) as House Republicans sought to downsize government more harshly than voters really wanted. He was a victim not of overreach but of those in his party whose arrogance got the better of them.
Four years ago, Mr. Clinton rode to victory on a famous slogan: "It's the economy, stupid." Today, if he dared, he could amend that to say "It's the economy, smarty." With one of the longest recoveries of the century perking along with low inflation, low unemployment, rising wages and job creation, he can be thankful that he accepted Greenspan austerity early on and that Congress saved him from a stimulus package that would have undermined his successful drive to reduce the size of annual deficits.
With Mr. Dole pushing a supply-side tax cut the public believes is contradictory to a balanced budget, the question arises as to which party can best manage the economy. Republicans had the edge in polls a year ago. No longer. Consumer confidence is on the rise, and the incumbent automatically benefits.
Neither candidate has discussed foreign policy with the emphasis that the national security requires. This is not by happenstance. Voters don't much care. They are fixated on abortion, race, gay rights, smoking, health care, environment, guns, drugs, education, crime, jobs and all the other things that affect daily life.
Unfortunately, neither candidate will speak out as candidly as Ross Perot on the need for tough measures to ensure the financial viability of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The nation's economic future is at stake. But political imperatives seemingly require silence or obfuscation or demagogy on the part of Mr. Clinton and Mr. Dole. Too bad. If voters seek a "grand ambition" to define a wise choice on Nov. 5, courageous action to deal with out-of-control entitlement programs surely qualifies.