WITH the Democrats having nominated their ticket of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and the Republicans ready next month to complete the formality of renominating George Bush and Dan Quayle, most of the many distractions which have left the 1992 campaign so superficially volatile and confusing have at last been removed.
It's easier now to see that the one compelling question for Americans to resolve in this presidential contest is: Will it be Mr. Bush or Mr. Clinton who will take the oath of office on January 20th?
The remaining distraction is, of course, Ross Perot. His poll numbers peaked about a month ago and are now falling - only 20 percent say they're inclined to support him in a Washington Post/ABC poll released Wednesday. More importantly, this and other recent surveys show that as the electorate has begun to focus on Mr. Perot as a possible president of the United States, the proportion viewing him unfavorably has climbed sharply.
Still, a man who is manifestly unprepared and ill-suited for the nation's highest political office, and who never showed a mass base of real support - "I don't know much about him" is still the predominant public response to Perot - was for three months the campaign's center of attention. How did this come about?
Studies by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonpartisan Washington research center which does content analysis of media news stories, provide a large part of the answer. Its latest findings, just released, show that from January 1 through June 2, both Bush and Clinton got far more bad coverage than good in the networks' evening news broadcasts. "On-air evaluations of Bush were 78 percent negative in election stories," the Center reports, "as he endured 23 straight weeks of predominantly bad pre ss." Clinton fared a little better: Over this span, his coverage was only 59 percent negative. In sharp contrast, 64 percent of the on-air evaluations of Perot were positive.
What, then, did the public get from the medium where most get their news? Short snippets mostly favorable to a "can-do billionaire businessman," coupled with almost unremittingly negative coverage of the incumbent and his Democratic opponent.
Let's be clear that none of this came about because Bush and Clinton were manifesting presidential weakness in contrast to Perot's strength. Rather, much of the press simply ignored deficiencies in Perot, even though they were far more glaring than anything evident in Bush or Clinton. That Perot's leadership style in business had been highly authoritarian from the beginning of his career would have been evident to any reporter making even the most cursory inquiry. So would his extreme sensitivity to crit icism, and his extreme inclination to a conspiritorial view of the world.
It's hardly that Perot was offering mature assessments of the country's problems. In fact, his remarks were consistently bereft of policy substance. What would Perot do about problems in health-care delivery and cost containment - this of a man who made his fortune on the margins of the health-care industry? Why, he'd get experts together, hammer out a solution and then get a national consensus on it, as though the problem is one of process, rather than developing a program acceptable to the country's di vergent interests.
Such vacuity is a familiar story whenever Perot has ventured outside the data processing business. I've just re-read, for example, a piece he wrote for Fortune Magazine, Feb. 15, 1988, just after General Motors had sent him packing. Fortune had asked Perot what he would do if GM asked him back.
His 13-point plan contains nary a word about the business of building automobiles. Perot would talk and consult with the 500 top officials of the company and develop a plan, which would be taken to every worker in the company. He would talk with customers, GM dealers, mechanics, stockholders, UAW leaders. Everyone would agree on the need for excellence.
Maybe the GM folks did need to sit around and chat more. But the real challenge facing the company involved the substance of solutions - just as the challenge of president involves pointing the country in the soundest possible direction.
On these matters Perot has said nothing. Yet for displaying such an extraordinary lack of leadership, he got as the press's prime response for five months an endless stream of undemanding talk-show invitations and mostly favorable sound bytes on the evening news.