TO judge by the initial debate, the November election is about "trust" (George Bush), "change" (Bill Clinton), and "action" (Ross Perot). These themes fairly represent each candidate's approach.
Trust, for Mr. Bush, is positive toward himself and invidious toward Mr. Clinton. Bush thinks he has acted decisively and responsibly. Congress, he says, has thwarted him; and he has countered with vetoes. Bush did not look Clinton in the eye when repeating his innuendo-laden questions about Clinton's Oxford-student-days antiwar protests. Clinton's repartee about Bush's father Prescott having stood up to McCarthyism should end the Moscow matter, if not the larger trust issue that Bush would cling to.
Trust as a character issue, politically speaking, works for Bush. He put his career together with a lot of pieces of string - personal contacts with many thousands of individuals over many years. His effectiveness in foreign affairs, apart from events like the Soviet Union and Iron Curtain breakup going for him, has been in his ability to keep in touch with individual leaders. It is sad to observe Bush attack the character of an opponent in 1992 as he did in 1988, rather than keep his focus on the issues . This is a paradox of Bush's character, that a leadership based on personal friendship can have a counterface in "enemies."
The change theme that Clinton has going for him does not carry with it many guarantees. We do not know how four years of Clinton will sit with voters. Voters may tire of Clinton if the economy and the perceived effectiveness of Washington do not get better. Clinton will need strong allies in Congress. He will need to build a team. He will have to prove he can hold at bay the special interests that would block, say, health-care or education reforms. Can he keep his composure when the conservative Republic an gnats get all over him?
And "change" for how long? Is Clinton the one-term kind of president, like Carter or Ford and maybe Bush? Is Clinton a winning candidate on the way to someone else?
The leadership time frame for Perot appears the briefest of the three. He asks: Why talk for 10 years about a 10-minute job? Well, there is such a thing as a balance of powers in government. The framers of the Constitution did not want to make it easy to lead this country. James Madison, particularly, thought it best that self-interests be allowed to compete and hold each other in check. Above the general static of political argument, it can take majorities of perceived will, and on occasion an overridin g moral or survival call, to get things done.
America's strength lies largely outside government. It has a strong free institutional base in its universities, corporations, and nonprofit research and cultural organizations. The size of the country, the variety of its physical attributes, the vitality of its agriculture, give it a strong world presence. Its forward look, its pragmatism, its willingness to embrace diversity, are resources that cannot be kept in a deficit balance.
America, in can be argued, is a state of mind. But it is no debating society. Americans want effectiveness and not excuses. They will listen to a little debate, but then they want to get on with the matter or drop it.
This mind-set favors Mr. Perot. He is feisty, quick to the point. He bristles for action. Perot's problem is that government does not respond to command the way business does. It is democratic. On idle, government talks. It has huge legislative assembly halls, filled or not, dedicated to oratory. In its modern form, government also researches. It loves studies. It dedicates huge warehouses to the limbo of complexity.
All this would drive Perot crazy. Perot refers to his "volunteer" supporters as if they embody the will of the American people. Maybe. We will see on Nov. 3.
The American people are as independent-minded as Perot himself. Many may identify with him. But does he have a political army behind him? The Democratic and Republican Parties, with their alliances, may be in a weakened state. But it's a reach to assume Perot's volunteer posse would be any match for them.