TALK of the primacy of issues over personality in elections is intended to hold preening, diatribe, intimidation - the exaggerated appeals of personality - in check. Citizens want to take aside the politician in some corridor and ask, Look me in the eye: What way are we really headed here?
A leader's character, the readiness of his team and the public to follow him, and the drive of events determine an administration's decisions.
A leader's character is usually complex. This was true even of Ronald Reagan, observes William Ker Muir Jr., political scientist and longtime Reagan watcher at the University of California at Berkeley. Reagan shook off the facts of his hard and common childhood to emerge into an idea-driven adulthood. "What was distinctive about the presidency of Ronald Reagan ... was the centrality of its character-shaping purposes," writes Mr. Muir in his new book, "The Bully Pulpit: The Presidential Leadership of Rona ld Reagan," (Institute of Contemporary Studies Press). "Its chief objective was to mold the fundamental axioms on which Americans premised their lives."
"To restore optimism, Reagan used the presidency to speak about the self-interest of individuals, their responsibilities to one another, and (most fundamental of all) their very nature. He set out to define a philosophy of freedom, to distinguish it from a philosophy of equality, and to plant it in the soul of the nation. Virtually all of Reagan's domestic policy achievements either ended in that moral goal or proceeded from it."
Reagan's ability to repeat political maxims, always as if for the first time, struck some as simple-mindedness. Others took it as effective communication. Whatever, he was elected for two terms.
George Bush did not succeed in abandoning his childhood. His Connecticut Yankee upbringing, an apparent rectitude of character, was never erased in the rough and tumble of his Texas political career. The kinder and gentler Bush fought with the visceral, attacker Bush in what is observed as a Jekyll and Hyde dualism.
We know a few things about Bill Clinton. He watches his constituencies closely. He has a tendency to want to be liked. His having concrete agendas for most major policy areas - like Reagan in 1980 - shows his dedication to coalition-building. But should he be elected, when the rigors of governing set in, to whom will he be able to say "no"? The infirmity of his answers about the draft, and not so much their substance, is troubling. Given the need either to let the economy restart itself slowly and sponta neously, or to prime it with spending, the likelihood of his cutting the deficit in half in four years is slim. How would a politician who likes to be liked deal with a public's disappointment?
I do not think the outcome of this election will be lodged in a comparison of the candidates' character, though their governing certainly would be affected by it.
The election is largely set in the circumstances of the time. Twelve years of Reagan-Bush has left even near-right and far-right supporters feeling that the energy of that coalition is for the moment spent - "for the moment," because it represents a permanent set of values in the American psyche. That spentness is felt deepest in Reagan's home base, California. Bush might as well finish campaigning comfortably rather than desperately. He should stress his accomplishments - which soon enough will be teste d under slogans like "Iran-contra" and "Iraqgate" by the hounds on Capitol Hill and the students of history. The retirement from sight by James Baker III, his partner in public life, signals how the course is set.
Economic events are such that Americans want a change in leadership. It is not so much a change from Bush to Clinton, Republican to Democrat. Clinton does not surface as the stronger in character.
Clinton should be reaching out broadly for a consensus to govern. Bush should be setting the stage for the GOP's return.
The election could take a tumble toward the conclusion, say by a Ross Perot surprise. The fact of a Clinton lead tends to mobilize an opposition. But the public wants to know how well Clinton's inner stuff will survive the erosion of responsibility for decisions.
For those who will go: Americans can be as appreciative of their leaders as they are demanding of them.
Those who will win will be offered no breaks. Citizens will give the Clintons of 1992, at all levels of public office, a hard look before they pull the lever.