Leading Article: Hope over experience

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The Independent Online
NEXT TUESDAY's American presidential election matters more than how the House of Commons votes on Maastricht. The United States, caught though it is in a phase of introverted pessimism, is still the world's most powerful democracy. Its president can make more difference to the lives of more people than anyone else. Its leadership, resources and political commitment are required for dealing with most of the world's larger problems. Its election is our affair, too.

This is not to say that the choice on Tuesday is a stark one. George Bush has been a tolerable President, better abroad than at home. He responded sensibly to the collapse of Communism and firmly to the invasion of Kuwait. His Secretary of State, James Baker, made exceptional progress towards a Middle East settlement. At home, Mr Bush has coped adequately, though unimaginatively, with a recession that was not his fault.

He has, however, been a largely passive President, reacting to events rather than shaping them. He has relinquished European affairs, east and west, to a European Community that is still a long way from being able to fill the gap. His refusal to become engaged in Yugoslavia has been disastrous, and his neglect of the former Soviet Union short- sighted. He has lacked the vision to exploit the extraordinary opportunities opened up by the collapse of Communism. His international influence has also been weakened by his failures at home, where he has shown himself out of touch with reality. By allowing the Republican Party to be captured by the extreme right, he has cut himself off from large sections of American society. His campaign has been shoddy, superficial and evasive. His bursts of energy have been devoted to saving himself, not his country.

Most of the credit in the campaign should go to the voters. They refused to become interested in the sleazier aspects of character assassination and have stuck stubbornly to the issues that concern them, primarily jobs, health and the budget deficit. Bill Clinton's success up to this point is due largely to his respect for their concerns. He recognises that his country has reached one of those moments in its history when it is looking for real change, not only in policies and personalities but in philosophy of government. Swinging away from its traditional aversion to central authority, it is demanding more active intervention to cope with the decay of infrastructure, the crisis in education, the impossible costs of health care and rising fears of diminished competitiveness.

Whether it is willing to pay for the remedies is another matter. Neither of the main candidates has been frank on the subject. Ross Perot came nearest, but his character let him down. Mr Clinton shows every sign of recognising the problems but has not dared risk his campaign by confronting the costs. His ability to find answers is, therefore, still in doubt. As Governor of Arkansas, he started with radical ideas but, after an electoral defeat, returned much chastened to cultivate the business community and the legislators with excessive deference. If he treats Congress too gently, his policies will be destroyed by the massed forces of liberal spending lobbies. The current unpopularity of Congress gives him a rare chance to assert the national interest if his mandate is large enough, but he will need to move fast to reduce the federal debt of about dollars 4,000bn, which is eating up tax revenues.

The issue of character is therefore a genuine one, although cheapened by Mr Bush. Is Mr Clinton too much of a conciliator and compromiser? Will he hesitate too long? His ability to survive the appalling pressures and personal attacks of the campaign speaks well for him, and he has shown much better judgement than Mr Bush in his choice of running mate. But doubts will persist until he proves himself. Only if he does so at home will he be able to resist the protectionist and isolationist pressures that could destroy his authority abroad.

This newspaper, true to its name, does not take sides in British elections. It observes no such constraints where foreign elections are concerned. The choice before the American voters concerns everyone. While Britain gets on well enough with President Bush, relations with a Clinton administration would probably be as good or better, given leaders of the same generation and with similar outlooks. If Mr Clinton were to establish his authority at home quickly, he could become an enlightened, modern and effective President abroad. Without great conviction, therefore, but with unquenchable optimism, we endorse Mr Clinton.