In Election '92, It's Context That Counts

WHAT'S driving this presidential campaign is not the candidates or the issues. It's the context.

Suddenly, voters are confronted with a new, relatively peaceful world where they can have a "domestic" president, a leader who need not have proven skills in dealing with a high-risk global scene where a presidential mistake could cause nuclear catastrophe.

A warrior's credentials, which George Bush gained in World War II and in the Gulf war, don't appear to mean much. The public, weighed down by a recession that looks like a depression to many, is saying: "We want a president who will take care of us. Let the rest of the world sort out its own problems for awhile."

What we have here is a return to a kind of isolationism. It's different from the isolationist feeling that was so prevalent in pre-World War II America. The main theme then was a desire to stay out of war abroad and out of entanglements that could lead to war. It came from the right wing of the Republican Party and was strongest in the Midwest.

There is, indeed, a certain stay-out-of-war strain in today's New Isolationism. It comes mainly from Democratic liberals who are vocal in their insistence on deep cuts in military spending.

Many of these Democrats also favor a move toward trade protectionism. They back laws that help protect American workers from competition from countries that, in their view, are taking jobs away from Americans. Notably Japan. The liberals were the "free traders" of the '30s and for many years afterward. Now President Bush is the "free trader."

The end of the cold war plus the recession constitutes the "context" that drives this campaign. It's this context that has lifted Bill Clinton so high in the polls, not Mr. Clinton personally. His personal flaws are apparent, and they almost defeated him in the primaries as his foes - other Democrats - exulted in the disclosure of his peccadillos and his grappling with the draft.

Indeed, one of the shrewdest observers in the Democratic camp - Jimmy Carter's party chairman, John White - told the Monitor's breakfast group a year ago that Clinton if nominated would, because of these private problems, be a "disaster." No one I knew, Democratic analyst or press pundit, argued with that assessment back then.

Back then Bush was breaking records for favorable ratings in opinion polls. He was still benefiting from the Gulf war victory and not yet hurting from a faltering economy.

That's why those generally regarded as the "best and brightest" Democratic presidential prospects decided not to run - though they would, of course, give other reasons. Cuomo, Gephardt, Rockefeller, Bentsen, Foley, Mitchell, and Gore all passed up the race, apparently viewing 1996 as next best chance of a Democrat being elected.

But the world continued to change and the recession stayed on and deepened. In the meantime, the highly personable Clinton beat out his adversaries, including Paul Tsongas, whose views won much admiration among Democrats, particularly in academia.

Mr. Tsongas, by the way, never seemed to like the cut of the Arkansas governor. Even by convention time, when the former Massachusetts senator appeared at a Monitor breakfast, he seemed hard put to say good things about the man about to win the nomination.

But it should be said, also, that Clinton should be given credit - and lots of it - for entering a race in which victory seemed highly unlikely and for enduring all those attacks, first from Democrats and then from Republicans, whether they were deserved or not. He gets an "A" for staying power.

Clinton has proved himself an energetic, bright, and, overall, impressive candidate and debater. He's also a masterful politician. Who else could lay claim to (and hang on to) a "Comeback Kid" title that was not really substantiated in the final vote totals of the New Hampshire primary?

But if Clinton wins (and the polls still seem to indicate this will happen in a tightening race) it will be the context - the cold war's thaw and the persistence of a biting recession - that brings about his victory.

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