Even if Clinton manages a convincing victory in New Hampshire and surges to the nomination, he will be up against overwhelming odds in facing a (healthy, presumably) sitting president. “No one knows who he is,” says one Republican strategist. “He has an indifferent record in Arkansas, absolutely zero experience in foreign policy, and, we hear, a history with the ladies. Are we worried? You guess.”
But maybe they should be. Clinton has shown the ability to grow and learn in this campaign—he’s the only Democrat who has improved his stump speech since September—and he’s shown an ability to connect with substance-starved voters. He’ll have to continue growing if he hopes to compete with George Bush. His challenge is different from most candidates’ who seek the presidency: He doesn’t need to smooth out the rough edges. For Clinton, the challenge is to create a few—to tell some unpleasant truths to his party and the nation, to show some passion, to stop trying to finesse all the people, all of the time.
The real litmus test is one that Clinton himself set: If the Democrats are going to win a presidential election this millennium, they will have to convince the public—as Clinton said last summer—that they’re interested in more than taking people’s money and giving it to “public employees or poor people who won’t spend it right.”
Clinton hasn’t done that yet. He has promised, but not delivered, major speeches about crime (a euphemism in the political trade for “race”) and government reform (“reinventing government”)—speeches that should challenge the ground-zero Democratic constituencies, minorities and public employees. Since specificity is the character issue of the year, Clinton should be held to a high standard: Will he speak clearly about subjects that are too ambiguous to be circumnavigated by a five-point plan—like the causes of the appalling family disintegration in the black community, or the debilitating consequences of racial preferences, while making clear that he stands for social justice? Will he directly challenge government employees to throw off the shackles of the civil-service system, to be more accountable, to compete against the private sector and one another, instead of stagnating in the current monopolistic public system?
That’s a lot to ask of any politician. But Clinton has begged the question by appearing to care about these issues, and the moral complexities they raise. Sometimes, in his stump speeches, he talks about how a spirit of community needs to be reestablished in the society and can happen only if everyone is willing to assume more responsibility. He goes through the litany, from welfare recipients to business executives, and says, “We’re all in this together. We all have to change. There’s no them and us in America. There’s just us.” One evening in South Carolina, he took it a step further: “I desperately want to be your president,” he said very softly. “But you have to be Americans again.”
A shiver ran through the crowd—prominent local Democrats, black and white. The line had powerful resonance: Clinton was digging very close to the heart of the national psyche, to the inchoate sense of loss that runs so hard and deep beneath the surface of the electorate this year. He was summoning a national altruism that was assassinated a quarter-century ago in Vietnam and the streets of our cities (as well as in the obvious places—Dallas, Memphis, and Los Angeles). It’s high time some politician tried to do that again: But if Bill Clinton wants to play those stakes—to get that personal, to mess with the American soul—he’s going to have to come clean himself and show us who he really is.