THE presidential election ahead is more than a contest over party, personality, and style. It is more than a contest between George Bush the front-runner and Michael Dukakis the underdog.
It is more than a debate over who won the debates.
It goes further than a referendum on the Reagan legacy of peace and prosperity, further even than a Democratic proclamation that it is time to throw out the ``ins'' of Republican favoritism toward the privileged.
At stake is the task of healing that unfinished second American civil war - the legacy of Vietnam.
The great split in American life left by the Vietnam war lives on - despite the fresh pride of Reagan-boosted patriotism.
Vietnam knocked Humpty Dumpty off the wall. It shattered into a thousand pieces Lyndon Johnson's cherished dream of the ``Great Society.''
Today it hardly seems possible that Johnson could have hoped to spend billions in a distant war while also pumping money from the government treasury into programs to raise up the poor at home. But Johnson believed America's huge wealth and vision made both possible.
The war and expanded budget deficits that followed shattered all that. The nation seems to have concluded that Humpty Dumpty cannot be patched up. Vietnam taught that there was no longer the unlimited luxury of both ``guns'' and ``butter.''
The war split the nation on whether to fight on for victory or to withdraw to cut costs in lives and treasure. The split spilled over to the issue of where to go after the war. Those splits are only partly resolved. They are what this year's election is still about.
Mr. Bush and Mr. Dukakis continue to fight out this second American civil war. Voters are skeptical of anyone who takes Johnson's tactic of promising everything. So which message should a candidate send? Which message will the voters buy?
Bush would build on the Reagan pride in renewed military spending. The lesson he draws from Vietnam is that America cannot flinch and let foreign bullies push it around on the world scene. Show the flag and build the rockets.
Bush pushes his version of a ``gentler'' America, but it will be built on personal example, not on major funding for social programs.
Dukakis draws from Vietnam the opposite ``lesson,'' to limit military spending and military interventions abroad and thus avoid the military encounters that might drain the country and divert its attention from home. He says power abroad comes from strengthening the economy with government programs.
The Dukakis message is to use the federal government to protect the ``average guy'' and the less fortunate from bullying by ``big guys'' at home.
So the next battle of the second civil war will be fought out at the ballot box. Which part of Johnson's dream should survive?
If we cannot have everything, where should the next four years take our national government? To stand tall against the foreign bully - or to redirect itself against all those things that hold down and hold back the ``underdogs'' at home?