The Next Two Years

US can't postpone education, trade, retirement, and moral reforms. A troubled world needs a leader. Will Clinton do?

Sadly, an aura of the Macbeths still hangs over the Clintons. Vaulting ambition mixed with a noble aim to lead have gone awry. More repair is needed.

President Clinton's half apologetic, half defiant explanation to the American people of l'affaire Lewinsky sounded hauntingly like the Shakespearean cry of "out, damned spot! Out."

But will it wash?

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For the sake of the American people - and indeed much of the world - both parties in Washington have to find a way to make the next two years productive. There are too many urgent items on the agenda (and too many global surprises possible) to permit two years of drift.

The semi-mea culpa

Mr. Clinton did part of what we and many others had urged him to do over the past seven months. Belatedly he corrected a blatant lie. But he did so with such a semi-mea culpa - couched in euphemisms like "inappropriate" instead of "immoral" and "misled" rather than "lied" that the redeeming effect of making a clean breast of his breach of the public's faith was diluted. He joined the all-too-many politicians who say: "I take full responsibility" but then rush to add "It's also that other fellow's fault."

That other fellow, in this case, was special counsel Kenneth Starr. To blame his office for distracting the country for "too long" when the length of the distraction was solely a product of White House delaying tactics is no way to start creating an atmosphere of bipartisan cooperation for the next two years.

Bipartisan work, or lost years

And make no mistake about it, the best way to make productive use of those years will be to seek cooperative solutions. Yes, there are some GOP cries for impeachment. But, barring clear evidence of witness tampering or subornation of perjury, most Republicans in Congress are still loath to launch an Al Gore presidency.

Meanwhile, work on improving educational standards (and that means teaching standards more than computer wiring), reforming Social Security and Medicare, and expanding free trade should not have to await the next century. The seven fat years of budget surpluses are here. When lean years arrive all those tasks will be harder to accomplish.

And the US cannot declare a two-year moratorium on leadership for curbing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. On leadership for reforming and funding the International Monetary Fund as a financial rescue service. On leadership for dealing with pollution and climate problems that are global in scope.

Despite malaise, major assets

As we noted two days ago, the world hasn't spun out of control. China has made huge progress since 1978. Russia, despite its financial and political turbulence, is better off than it was nine years ago. Japan has the wealth, if it can find the will, to escape its recession and provide capital and leadership in Asia. The limping Asian tigers have major assets in millions of highly trained workers and modern plants that they didn't possess a generation back. Europe is moving toward practical amalgamation, recovering from stagnation, beginning to create much needed jobs, and wrestling with welfare state reforms. Most Latin American states are both more democratic and more economically sound than a generation ago.

But, despite these gains, a malaise ranging from loss of confidence to fear hangs over much of the world. It's no clich to say that leadership is needed. And, as we've seen lately in the Balkans, Japan, the Middle East, newly nuclear India and Pakistan, even tiny Cyprus, no other power is willing to provide leadership unless the US does so first.

Which raises the question of that more intangible subject: moral leadership.

Moral reformer?

Polls show the American public critical of Mr. Clinton's morals but positive on his governing. Whether or not faith in his governing is dented, can a straying president provide leadership for the moral reform that so many Americans feel is needed?

In some ways his recent anguishing experience could help him to do so - if he grasps its lessons. A moral rebirth in the US is less a matter of legislation on drugs, abortion, or family tax credits than it is of individual spiritual awakening. Where better to start than with the occupant of the bully pulpit.

But leadership in this area cannot be a matter of teary television and semantic salesmanship. It must come from the heart. It ought to start with the private family rebuilding Mr. Clinton promised this week. And that would set an example for many Americans who need to improve that most central institution in their own lives.

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