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In Election '92, It's Context That Counts

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WHAT'S driving this presidential campaign is not the candidates or the issues. It's the context.

Suddenly, voters are confronted with a new, relatively peaceful world where they can have a "domestic" president, a leader who need not have proven skills in dealing with a high-risk global scene where a presidential mistake could cause nuclear catastrophe.

A warrior's credentials, which George Bush gained in World War II and in the Gulf war, don't appear to mean much. The public, weighed down by a recession that looks like a depression to many, is saying: "We want a president who will take care of us. Let the rest of the world sort out its own problems for awhile."

What we have here is a return to a kind of isolationism. It's different from the isolationist feeling that was so prevalent in pre-World War II America. The main theme then was a desire to stay out of war abroad and out of entanglements that could lead to war. It came from the right wing of the Republican Party and was strongest in the Midwest.

There is, indeed, a certain stay-out-of-war strain in today's New Isolationism. It comes mainly from Democratic liberals who are vocal in their insistence on deep cuts in military spending.

Many of these Democrats also favor a move toward trade protectionism. They back laws that help protect American workers from competition from countries that, in their view, are taking jobs away from Americans. Notably Japan. The liberals were the "free traders" of the '30s and for many years afterward. Now President Bush is the "free trader."

The end of the cold war plus the recession constitutes the "context" that drives this campaign. It's this context that has lifted Bill Clinton so high in the polls, not Mr. Clinton personally. His personal flaws are apparent, and they almost defeated him in the primaries as his foes - other Democrats - exulted in the disclosure of his peccadillos and his grappling with the draft.

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