A NEWLY elected president is supposed to get at least a three-year rest from presidential campaign politics. Yet here is President Clinton, with only three months in office, being forced back into contention with a rival. Ross Perot is sniping at him, and Mr. Clinton is firing back.
Actually, Mr. Perot was much closer to Clinton than to George Bush in the last campaign. Perot's charges of "deadlock" and "stagnation" were aimed at the president. The Texan snarled at Mr. Bush. He hardly laid a glove on Clinton. Indeed, it is arguable that Perot, more than Clinton, cut Bush down to the size where he was vulnerable to defeat.
And now Clinton has become Perot's target. The president has accused Perot of "rumor mongering" and Perot, in an interview with a New York Times reporter, charged that Clinton had "ducked" military service and thus lacked moral authority to criticize an Army general who recently complained of poor treatment at the hands of a White House aide. "If he wants to climb into the ring," Perot warned, "any time, anywhere."
"Politics ain't beanbags," as Peter Finley Dunne's Mr. Dooley once commented. And what we're hearing from Clinton and Perot sounds like they both have put on their brass knuckles.
What is really irking Clinton is the pounding he's getting from Perot over his economic package. Perot says it is bad and won't work: "Most of it is based on really tentative premises and guesses." Clinton, nettled, insists his plan is really Perot's, though better, and that it won't tax the middle income group as much.
Now the president has a further distraction from what he has called his single-minded effort to improve the economy.
He's been having to deal with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his plight and with the crisis in Bosnia. And now what is he to do about this pesky fellow who simply cannot be brushed away? After all, Perot picked up 19 million votes last November, and recent polls show more than 40 percent of the public holding a favorable opinion of the outspoken Texan. Clinton knows that he's dealing with a political heavy hitter.
One has to wonder what would have happened if Perot had stuck in the race and not had to reenter after disillusioning (and losing) a large number of his backers. Just before the Democratic convention, polls were showing it a tight, three-way race. Bush was sagging. Clinton still was beleaguered by questions about his personal problems, military and marital. Perot's directness and open-handedness were winning him new voters every day.
I'll never understand why Perot decided to leave the race at convention time. He said he could see that, as an independent, he could not win and that he would likely throw the outcome into the House where either a Democrat or a Republican would prevail. Yet, later, he reentered, setting up the same possibility.
At the time I wrote that Perot had tired of the heat in the kitchen, that the digging into his life and the lives of his family members by the press had irritated him to the point where he decided the flame wasn't worth the candle. I also speculated that he had begun to see what a crucible the presidency is for anyone who holds that position and that he simply didn't want any part of it.
Along with a lot of other people, I have sometimes wondered what kind of a president Perot would be.
Could he quickly get to the heart of all our problems and with rapid decisions provide solutions? It didn't seem too likely. But it would be fun to see him try to do it. One thing is certain: Fur would fly.
Even now Perot isn't showing us his hand. At election time he buoyed supporters by saying he was holding open the option of running again. But now he is saying, when asked, that he isn't going to be a candidate in 1996.
This energetic, persuasive fellow is an enigma. But he is continuing to make a big and positive impression on a lot of voters. And he certainly is holding Clinton's attention.