WASHINGTON -- Who is Gov. Bill Clinton?
According to press reports, he is the leading Democratic candidate for president. According to public opinion polls, he is trailing behind President Bush and undeclared candidate Ross Perot.
Since winning the bruising Democratic primary in New York State last month, Mr. Clinton seems to have slipped from public view. He has become the forgotten candidate, like a hot starting pitcher who has lost his touch and is left to loosen up in the bullpen.
Although Mr. Clinton seems to have clinched his party's nomination, he has missed opportunities to get his message across to voters. The Los Angeles riot saw him engaged in a brief debate with President Bush over urban policy, but he was unable to capitalize on the distress in America's streets to make a broader charge about White House neglect of domestic issues. Lately, he has been eclipsed by Murphy Brown and Dan Quayle.
To be sure, American interest in presidential politics can't be sustained day in an day out. Voters don't get focused on the general election until after Labor Day.
But the Clinton campaign is clearly stalled, and the candidate's top strategists are mulling what do next to recapture momentum. Mr. Clinton is beset by both tactical and strategic problems that he has yet to deal with effectively.
Tactically, he has decided to keep his campaign headquarters in Little Rock instead of moving it to Washington. That is a mistake because it leaves the Clinton team isolated and out of touch. Washington, for all its hubris and unreality, is still a place where a lot of smart and experienced people could rub shoulders with Mr. Clinton's advisers and help hone strategy. The campaign simply cannot get the kind of advice it needs from the steps of the state courthouse in Little Rock.
According to a report last week in The Washington Times, the lastest shakeup in the Clinton campaign brain trust has loaded up on Old World liberal talent from the days of Michael Dukakis. Included in key positions of influence are economic adviser Robert Reich from Harvard, businessman Eli Segal, media adviser George Stephanopoulos, campaign chairman Mickey Kantor of Los Angeles, and Washington attorney Thomas Donilon.
Strategically, the campaign is still fumbling to find the kind of message the candidate ought to bring to the voters. Mr. Clinton has gone down the wrong alley by repeatedly talking about how Americans want "change." He repeats the word endlessly, every time he is asked to explain his position on an issue.
Americans in the 1990s are not looking for change. They are an older and slightly grumpier lot, more conservative than during the bell-bottom 1970s, and they are looking for stability. They want to be assured that their jobs are safe, their homes will not depreciate, their streets will remain safe, their savings will still be worth something for their children. It is a mood President Bush will successfully seize on if Mr. Clinton does not get the point.
An even bigger problem for Mr. Clinton is the general disgust and mistrust of established politicians that is running like a fever through the public consciousness. It is no accident more than 50 House members and seven senators have announced plans to retire. They sense a disenchantment that is a real and powerful force driving things in a direction no one can predict.
Mr. Clinton has more position papers and campaign ideas than any other politician, a reflection of a bright and well-read scholar with a recall that continues to impress those who know him. But Americans are reluctant to back a political engineer in the White House who will start pulling the levers of government to make things better. That is tinkering with the process, and voters are suspicious of the the pros with even the best of intentions.
Witness the surge in popularity of Ross Perot, the babbling billionaire who looks like E.T. in a suit and continues to attract attention with his non-ideas. He is drawing support from Republicans and Democrats alike.
Mr. Clinton has his work cut out for him if he wants to be back on the playing field when the election season heats up in the fall.