THE close of the Republican National Convention last night in Houston marks the beginning of the decisive stretch run in the 1992 presidential campaign. We've learned a lot about the nation's political mood and intent thus far, though the big question - which man, George Bush or Bill Clinton, will win on Nov. 3 - remains unanswered.
We have learned that the prism through which the press has insisted on filtering its reporting badly distorted political reality. The predominant view has been that Americans are angry and rebellious. But for all the boomlets on behalf of protesting outsiders - from David Duke and Pat Buchanan to Jerry Brown and Ross Perot - the race has boiled down to a centrist Republican and a centrist Democrat, each practicing traditional, consensus politics.
Has there been, in all of United States history, a presidential contest that more belied the image of an electorate in rebellion? The Democrat has raced to a lead in the polls by emphasizing family and other traditional values, a strong military and a readiness to use it on behalf of human freedom around the world, more effective encouragement of economic growth in the private sector, and a welfare system that stresses individual responsibility.
That is, the Democratic challenger proposes to win over this supposedly angry, change-demanding electorate by stealing the incumbent Republican's clothes. The entire Clinton campaign has been based on the assumption that the configuration of group alignments and policy concerns introduced into the US system since the mid-1960s has become the established political order - the "rules," if you will, under which politics must now be played.
Clinton's effort assumes an electorate bent on maintaining the political course it has charted by fits and starts over the last quarter century, not one thrashing about for some new direction.
This isn't to deny that many Americans are concerned about the state of affairs. A people with high expectations derived from a history of exceptional attainments, we are dissatisfied with two years of mediocre economic performance; we're uncertain about the future, having been told incessantly - though incorrectly - that other countries, especially Japan, are surpassing us; and we're troubled, as we should be, that for all the resources available to us we have allowed the family and other critical insti tutions to develop grave weaknesses.
The electorate in 1992 is far from contented. But its plea is conservative and restorationist. Americans don't want a bold new direction, rather assurance that the old verities still hold and will be cared for.
This being so, it has never been clear which party will benefit most come November. The incumbent president inevitably suffers from the widespread national unease; his leadership has, after all, been insufficient to dispel it, though doing so would have been a feat. But the situation is far different from that in 1980, when the president's performance itself was seen as the core of the problem.
The public today is more in doubt of other political institutions, notably of Congress. It has not made up its mind on the central issue of whether President Bush deserves four more years.
It's this indecision that renders the polls thus far virtually useless as predictors of the November vote, and that accounts for their extraordinary volatility - for example, Bush slightly ahead in early July and 30 points behind two weeks later.
This year's contest most resembles the races of l948, 1968, and 1976 - in the one important sense that a huge slice of the electorate in each case was undecided going into the stretch of the campaign.
Poll numbers in each of the latter elections swung heavily in the stretch after the party conventions. Surveys taken in July 1976, for example, put Jimmy Carter up over Gerald Ford by 30 points. Much of this disappeared around the Republican convention in August, but 10 points or so eroded over the campaign's final weeks, as Carter won by a whisker.
In August 1992 a great many Americans are still shopping. The underlying structure of the race, which a year ago appeared to favor the Republicans decisively, now favors them only narrowly. Thus, the autumn campaign itself - what voters conclude from a direct comparison between the two candidates - will tell the story.