JUST two and a half weeks remain before Americans cast their ballots. Though much can still happen in this fluid and confused election, the tide of voter sentiment has clearly turned in October against President Bush. The swing element of the electorate now seems settling into a judgment that goes something like this: "I've got lots of doubts about Bill Clinton, but I think it's time for a change so I'll take a chance on him." Even when he performs ably, as he did in the first presidential debate, Bush c an't seem to make headway. A plurality of respondents told pollsters that Ross Perot did the best job in the first debate. Considering how simplistic his remarks were, that's powerful testimony to just how much the public has been sold on the "things are a mess" argument.
What should the president do when, it appears, a majority of the electorate is deciding against him? Admitting that advice is cheap and easily dispensed from a columnist's comfortable perch, I would urge the following:
1. See your predicament, Mr. President, as liberating. Front-runner status and close elections inevitably dictate caution in a campaign. You are apparently well behind your Democratic rival, but there are a lot worse things than losing a free election. You know you have served ably and honorably - nowhere more so than in your conduct of the Gulf war and your role in managing the breakup of the Soviet empire. You have nothing to fear from history's verdict. For the rest of the campaign, don't press. J ust tell us where you stand and why.
2. Stop trying to court Perot's supporters by holding back your criticism. It was a big mistake sending your emissaries to Dallas, hat in hand, to meet with Perot and his campaign staff. You're trailing now because the Perot-Clinton argument that America's in a mess has won a lot of converts. You must meet that argument, which you know is wrong, head-on and all-out. That means, among other things, that you must take Perot on - and show that the very idea of him as president is a bad joke.
3. You know the American people have been sold a bill of goods on economic failure. Our $6 trillion economy has its share of problems and we shouldn't simply smile benignly on them, but they have been wildly exaggerated. For example, the civilian unemployment rate announced for September is exactly what it was in September 1984 when your predecessor was triumphantly reelected amid a rush of economic optimism; and our gross federal debt - which hardly is all your responsibility anyway - is a 20-percentage -point smaller proportion of GDP now than in 1950. What knowledgeable person would swap the overall economic position of the United States for that of any other country?
4. Your opponent's "solutions" are, of course, more government taxation, regulation, and spending. The public doesn't want this. Perhaps never before have Americans been more frustrated than they are today by the performance of the state, more aware of the infirmities of public-sector bureaucracies. But it's a short step from "Things are a mess!" to "We've got to do something!"
"Government" isn't a bad word. But there are good reasons why, around the world, country after country is struggling to curb the state. The American public philosophy has long celebrated the vitality and creativity of the private sector and given it relatively more space than it has elsewhere. So it's more than a little ironic that your opponents are carrying the day on a platform which, at its base, is a call for more government. Your campaign in the closing weeks, Mr. President, needs to concentrate on
these deep contradictions.
5. Finally, every generation of Americans has known that it has been given a very special heritage - and worries that it may not be up to it. We want deeply to honor and redeem and fulfill "the promise of American life." But we won't achieve that today if we retreat from our private and individual responsibilities. It's not the performance of the US economy, or the lack of government spending, that's at the heart of our present frustration. Your job now, Mr. President, is to help us see this more clearly .