Mr Clinton must keep looking over his shoulder: The US presidential race is still wide open, says Godfrey Hodgson

Click to follow
THINGS have moved so swiftly in the Democrats' favour in the past 10 days that we have to remind ourselves that the Fat Lady, who watches over American elections, and without whose decisive aria no opera is over, has yet to sing.

Ross Perot's decision to withdraw from the campaign has had almost as dramatic an effect as his decision to enter it in the first place. First the polls suggested that many of those who had said they would vote for Mr Perot would transfer their votes not to George Bush but to Bill Clinton.

Next, the Democrats contrived an uncharacteristically united and peaceful convention. Perhaps because Mr Clinton staked out liberal, or at least centrist, positions on most issues that matter to the left of his party, there was only muffled dissidence from that direction. And in choosing Al Gore, the Tennessee senator, as his vice-presidential candidate, he spurned the conventional wisdom that the ticket must be balanced between right and left, east and west, north and south, brisk youth and reverend old.

Mr Clinton and Mr Gore are both young, well-educated and come from the northern tier of the Old South and the centre column of the Democratic Party. When they set out on a shrewdly planned bus tour across the small towns of America from New York to St Louis they scored a ringing public relations success. Before the Republicans knew what had hit them, they were almost 30 points behind in the polls. Washington has seethed with rumours. The President was going to dump Dan Quayle. He was going to call James Baker back from the State Department to run the campaign. He was ill, and planned to pull out and hand over to Mr Baker. Or to General Colin Powell. Or to Dick Cheney, the Defense Secretary.

Rumours aside, the President's forces are certainly in disorder. His campaign is not being brilliantly run, the economy is still in recession, the credit he won for his handling of the Gulf war has been worn away. Journalists are more interested in how much his administration helped Iraq before the war than in reminding voters of how he won it. He has been coming across as tired, testy and slightly out of touch. And Mr Quayle has chosen this moment to quarrel publicly with his wife about abortion, the most dangerous issue threatening the Republicans.

Yet the Democrats cannot assume the race is in the bag. Just after the 1988 conventions, the Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis, was well ahead. The Republican convention next month should give Mr Bush a boost. Once the campaign begins in earnest, which traditionally happens after Labor Day in the second week in September, the Republicans will pour tens of millions of dollars into negative advertising about the Democrats in general and Mr Clinton in particular. They will throw mud by the carload, and some will stick. The plot has many twists and turns left before the end.

One thing, however, is already certain. The withdrawal of Mr Perot does not return American politics to the two-party system, as if he had never existed. It returns them to the condition before he intervened, the condition that made his successes possible. With all the money in the world, Mr Perot could not have struck a chord with so many Americans if he had not expressed the profound resentment and bewilderment they feel.

Those feelings can be summed up as the tarnishing of the American Dream. There is frustration about foreign policy, and there is bewilderment as well as satisfaction at the collapse of the Soviet empire. There is resentment that, while a few have prospered, the average family is little better off than 20 years ago, and in some respects feels far more threatened by crime, drugs, Aids and environmental pollution. There is alarm at the cost of health care and at the decline of public education. And there is fury at politicians who seem to have done so well for themselves while doing so little good.

At first, people blessed Ronald Reagan because he pretended that none of these problems existed; it was morning in America. But it was morning only for some, and Mr Bush has inherited massive resentment because people know that now. Mr Clinton inherits this resentment, too. His task is to convince the voters that the Democrats can make US society fairer and more dynamic without a return to high spending and high taxation. He will have to do so while under fire from a Republican campaign which, if 1988 is any precedent, will tear up the Queensberry rules. And, to carry through this miracle, he has only until November.