Now he can make the running: This week Bill Clinton has the chance to reintroduce himself to a jaded American public and in the process lead his party into a new era, writes Rupert Cornwell

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The Independent Online
Behind the extravaganza of balloons, bedlam and self-induced euphoria that at present fills the great arena of Madison Square Garden, a terrible thought haunts delegates to the Democratic convention this week. They have lost five of the last six elections. Can they ever win again, even in this strange presidential year in which the only certainty is uncertainty? Those among them who follow British politics might wonder whether the party of Thomas Jefferson is going the way of the party of Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald and Harold Wilson - like Labour, seemingly doomed to the role of eternal also-ran.

Just possibly, though, a more distant comparison might be more apposite, the fate of Winston Churchill in 1945. Then, a decade or more of effective Conservative rule ended with the stunning defeat of a great leader, victor over Hitler's Germany, but whom the electorate judged ill- suited to lay the foundations of desperately needed domestic renewal. The parallels with today's America are hard to resist. Here, too, is an elderly chief executive (George Bush would be 70 midway through a second term) who has enjoyed great foreign triumphs - militarily against Saddam Hussein, ideologically against the Soviet Union - but who seems unable to grasp the changed priorities of the post-Cold War world.

Oppositions do not win elections, governments lose them, runs the old British political adage; and Mr Bush's performance since they ran down the hammer and sickle over the Kremlin last Christmas Day has been, not to put too fine a point on it, pathetic. Both abroad and at home, he has put scarcely a foot right. The economy flounders, he has yet to give the slightest idea what he would do with a second term. The question is even to be heard, does he really want a second term?

The current dead heat between himself, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot guarantees a thrilling autumn. No less pertinent, though, is the fact that three and a half months from election day the approval rating of an incumbent president barely exceeds 30 per cent, a depth unplumbed since Jimmy Carter, the last one-term president, was defeated in 1980. Even on the tax issue that he has made his own, Mr Bush is supremely vulnerable. Four years ago, his 'Read my lips, no new taxes' pledge sent the Republican convention into delirium. The remarkable finding of a new poll is that American voters now consider him the candidate most likely to raise taxes if elected in November.

But the cruellest cut came last week. The Public Broadcasting Service's Robin MacNeil, at once the least glamorous and most perceptive of American television's anchormen, put forward the dollars 64,000 question when he interviewed Mr Bush, fresh from a singularly fruitless G7 summit in Munich.

'Mr President,' he said, 'people increasingly are saying: 'You just don't get it.' How do you respond?' Mr Bush naturally rejected the accusation, as he had to. But the wan smile that flickered across a suddenly aged, lined face told another story. Mr MacNeil had hit the bull's-eye.

Whatever other objections Mr Clinton may provoke, he at least does 'get it'. He has spent all his life preparing for the presidency. It is fashionable to dismiss him as a tedious 'policy plodder', who at the crunch would flinch from harsh choices. Nevertheless, alone of the candidates he has a detailed programme for the future. He has, moreover, dragged the Democrats - albeit in many cases kicking and screaming - on to a new path. No one is more responsible for the party's belated understanding of how the country has changed since the Kennedy/Johnson era. His open espousal of the middle classes, his selection of Senator Al Gore of Tennessee (another young, moderate Southerner) as his running mate, a calculated feud with the Rev Jesse Jackson, the black civil rights leader - all these things reflect the realisation that this election will be won or lost in the white suburbs of mainstream America, which has long considered the Democrats too responsive to extremist pressure groups, too gentle with foreign tyrants and soft on law-and-order and crime. Mr Clinton, let it be remembered, supports the death penalty.

Of course, the strategy carries risks. In the first place, 'generation' is a wild card in US presidential elections. Ronald Reagan might have seemed positively senile on occasion, but his greatest popularity was among the young, more of whom now declare themselves Republican than any other age group. Nor is it certain that the carefully projected spectacle of Messrs Clinton and Gore, two slightly corpulent men in their early middle age, jogging through Central Park this week is one of nature's vote winners. The dispute with Mr Jackson, too, may backfire if it reduces the turnout of blacks, this year as ever a core Democratic constituency. But Mr Clinton is gambling that on 3 November, they and other members of the old New Deal coalition will rally to his banner - if only for want of anything better.

That, however, is the future. The present is Madison Square Garden, where everything has been choreographed to minimise trouble. Jerry Brown, that eternal fount of populist indignation, may not even address the convention. Both Mr Jackson and Paul Tsongas, the former Massachusetts senator and a Clinton rival in the early primaries, whose fondness for uncomfortable truths makes him another potential member of the awkward squad, are due to speak this evening. It is no coincidence that the mainstream, six-pack suburbs are being offered the rival prime-time television attraction of baseball's annual midsummer All-Star game in San Diego.

So can the Democrats win in 1992? Of course they can. That is not to say they will win, however. No one can predict how the independent candidate, Ross Perot, will fare in the months ahead, or which party will surrender the bigger share of the vote he finally wins - though experts increasingly suspect the Republicans will suffer most. And Mr Clinton, whose trustworthiness and 'character' still worry much of the electorate, has yet to face the Republican guns of autumn. Last week, Mr Bush made a great show of calling off the sleaze merchants over a television commercial inviting viewers to phone in for further details of Mr Clinton's alleged adultery with Gennifer Flowers. But it is as sure as Washington's portrait on a dollar bill that come the World Series in October, his minions will have nudged Ms Flowers and draft-dodging back into the public eye.

Mr Clinton's vulnerability, however, is not what it was a few months ago. He has crossed the valley of death and emerged on the other side. In a curious sense, the rise of Mr Perot has obscured the agonies of the primary campaign. What is more, public perceptions of him have changed. Hitherto he has been just another Democratic contender, governor of a poor Southern state; now he is a potential president. His acceptance speech on Thursday is vital. Circumstances have given Mr Clinton that rare opportunity for a politician of reintroducing himself, almost from scratch, to his jaded, dispirited countrymen.

If he can capture their imaginations this week, anything is possible. As he works on the speech in his Manhattan hotel suite, he is said to be watching videos of previous Democratic candidates at their moment of coronation. What he must do, though, is rise above the convention hoopla and present the other Bill Clinton; not the adept and sleek insider who was worrying about his future 'political viability' when a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford 23 years ago, but the man from a humble town called Hope, in Arkansas, whose father died before he was born, and who rose by his own ability to where he stands today.

And one last thought might comfort him, apropos of parties who fear they will never win again. After the Barry Goldwater debacle in 1964, a similar despondency settled on the Republicans. Unbeknown to almost everyone, however, Mr Goldwater had indirectly pointed the road ahead, a harbinger of an emerging conservative majority that carried Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush to power. The state of the economy and Mr Bush's own dubious conservative credentials have undermined that coalition. Bill Clinton, with the right combination of conviction, courage and sheer luck, could open a new Democratic era.

(Photograph omitted)

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