Political 'Voodoo' Clarified

DEAR international readers: It's time for another seminar on American politics.

The US is once more passing through the early stages of a process resembling Wimbledon - but not quite. The party primaries (and caucuses) constitute a voter selection process to produce two finalists for a Democrat-Republican singles match next fall. But it is possible for losers in an early primary to make a comeback if they don't trail too badly in vote percentage. Bill Clinton was living proof of that four years ago, when he lost in Iowa and New Hampshire but recovered in his native South.

In Iowa this week the Republican field effectively narrowed to three contenders: balanced budget pragmatist Bob Dole, fortress America moralist Pat Buchanan, and middle-of-the-road modernizer Lamar Alexander. Flat-tax advocate Steve Forbes's advertising-inflated campaign deflated.

Next Tuesday the Republican contenders repeat their struggle in the New Hampshire primary, where the same three leaders may emerge (possibly in the same order) to head into the thick season of larger primaries just ahead. New Hampshire touts its almost perfect record of picking the eventual Republican winner for the fall campaign. Likely; not certain.

All right, you say. That's lots of names. But what about policies? How might America's course be affected?

First, a word about voodoo. In 1980, George Bush accused Ronald Reagan of practicing ''voodoo economics.'' That came to mean cutting taxes to stimulate the economy without simultaneous budget balancing. It led to a ballooning national debt.

In recent weeks Steve Forbes pitched a return of ''voodoo economics,'' while Bill Clinton was busy practicing ''voodoo politics'' - namely the sleight of hand of stealing most of the Republicans' smaller-government, balanced-budget, family-values platform.

Although Forbes may still place in New Hampshire, it appears that voodoo economics is punctured, and rightly so. Republican voters would do well to puncture Buchanan's trade-shrinking, economy-denting isolationism. Dole, meanwhile, could profitably highlight ideas for economic growth, to augment his tough budget-balancing message.

Clinton's appropriation of Republican themes should help him mightily in the November vote. But if he wins and sweeps in enough big-government Democrats from the other wing of his party, he could find it just as hard to govern and keep his budget-balancing promise as it was with Republican revolutionaries riding high.

Neither would a Dole presidency have an easy time with an ideologically polarized Congress. But he, at least, is long hardened to finding his way through that gantlet.

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