PRESIDENT Clinton has fired the first ''spots'' in the 1996 presidential demolition derby. Over the next month or so, his campaign organization will air a series of three 30-second TV ads in some 20 cities.
Turning to the all-too-familiar ingredients of commercial TV - guns, cops, and victims - coupled to menacing music, the Clinton pitch exploits the passage of his crime bill last year as the ''hook'' to prove that he, not the Republicans, is tough on crime. In the aftermath of Oklahoma City, this is a wedge issue with an emotively loaded spin that could move some rightward-tending votes his way.
As an opening campaign note to a mass audience in this age of economic and social anxiety, the glossy, packaged half-minute TV sell seems incongruously unpresidential, ill-chosen, and ill-wrapped. A president has a host of more appropriate forums at his command.
In 1992 Ross Perot tried intelligent oration in paid political broadcasts. For the most part, they proved effective. They drew and held sizable audiences. The president would do well to emulate Perot, forswearing spots for substance, challenging his GOP antagonists in advance of the front-loaded Republican primaries to go ''cold turkey'' and do the same. The weaning of politicians from their addiction to TV ads would lower the cost of campaigning and restore integrity and substance to political discourse.
The current prospect is that the use of produced TV spots by candidates in 1996 will set new levels of overspending, tawdriness, and excess. TV spots discount the process of democratic choice by treating voters as consumers, not citizens. Their blatant manipulation and huckster-style hot-buttons are turning off voters and short-circuiting democracy.
Only those who can pay are able to play. Most of the $20 million that each GOP presidential fund-raising team is currently seeking to finance its man through the coming primary blizzard will go to television. TV ads now account for 3 of every 4 campaign dollars.
The TV Bureau of Advertising calculated that, in the 1992 presidential campaign, candidates and their supporters delivered $228 million to the industry for television programs and spots, a 26 percent increase over 1988.
On commercial television, politics is just another profit center. Candidates and their patrons are paying more and more. They are literally buying the offices they seek. What the TV industry charges for air time has driven the price of a House seat in many districts into the millions.
California's Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and her Republican opponent in 1994, oilman Michael Huffington, collectively spent more than $40 million in their campaign, the highest in Senate history. Mr. Huffington, a millionaire, was able to dig into his own pocket. Ms. Feinstein had to get a second mortgage on her house and sell some of her securities. She spent most of her time not on the stump but on the phone raising cash.
Politics by TV gives control of the campaign, and the governance that follows, to special interests. Fund-raising becomes the dominating task in the political life of the campaigner, who spends time pressing fat cats rather than flesh. Searching for solutions is replaced by dragnets for dollars. No sooner is he elected than he must begin building a war chest for the next race.
With TV spots, what the donor expects takes precedence over what the citizen deserves. Voters are suspended between two untenable choices - disgusted involvement or offended alienation. With real issues replaced by buzz words and ''hooks,'' an increasing number of voters are simply opting out.
The failure of reform
Flawed campaign spending ''reforms'' that were put in place after Watergate impose no ceilings on what political donors can spend on TV, or on how they spend it. In 1988, right-wing political consultants independently raised $8.5 million and dedicated it to the infamous Willie Horton campaign spot. Candidate George Bush was safely unaccountable.
Former congressman Peter Kostmayer of Pennsylvania, who has given much thought to the issue of dollar politics since his 1992 defeat, explained that ''members of Congress despise the process but are addicted to it, terrified that change means defeat.''
Mr. Kostmayer has proposed that radio and TV stations, and, presumably, networks be required to give free time to candidates, as in most European democracies. One of the most lucrative industries in America certainly should be required to give something useful back to its society. There ought to be ground rules, too, about what form the political spots take. The First Amendment gives full protection to political speech, but not commercial speech, which is what these electronic pitches have been turned into.
Sixty-one percent of Americans who could have voted in November, 1994, stayed home. They are sending an ominous message about telepolitics, one that can't be packaged in a 30-second spot.