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Clinton Must Relax--and Certainly Not Attack Perot

<i> Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as Walter F. Mondale's campaign manager in 1988</i>

For Bill Clinton, what should be the best of times seems to be the worst of times. As Democratic nominee, he will run against the weakest incumbent President in this century. Yet, his campaign is in a state of massive frustration and confusion over being mired in a black hole of media oblivion and dominated--in the news, in the polls, and at the grass roots--by a Texas billionaire who has yet to declare his candidacy.

So it may sound strange to offer this bit of advice: Don’t Worry. Be Happy.

Here is Clinton, an aberration because the party’s rules actually worked and producing an early and moderate nominee. He is speaking well, with good appearances and enthusiastic crowds. Clinton seems to have hit his stride. His message of change has come back.

Yet many suggest that media neglect of Clinton’s candidacy places him in danger of being eliminated as the alternative to George Bush--replaced by Ross Perot.

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Some panicked Democrats are urging Clinton to attack Perot to prevent this. Indeed, as the Clinton campaign gets more frustrated with its inability to penetrate the Perot phenomenon, the temptation to lash out grows. Don’t!

Relax.

The most important things about Perot’s candidacy for Clinton is they it is real, it has some staying power and it will cripple Bush. That is all good news. Every day Perot is in the news attacking Bush, attacking the Establishment, government gridlock, the lack of any domestic policy and the direction this country is heading, is a day Clinton benefits. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

What Perot is riding is a wave of profound desire for change. Instead of fighting the wave, Clinton should ride it with him. He must not waste limited time and resources attacking Perot. Instead of whining that Perot stole his message of change, Clinton should share it with him. It came from the people--with no candidate’s copyright on it. Instead of working against Perot, Clinton should join him and together rip Bush apart. Remember, George cannot ride the change wave. He doesn’t understand it; the voters know it.

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Americans want fundamental change. We have an angry, frustrated, cynical electorate. Clinton should not fight their dissatisfaction with government; he should embrace it. Whenever Perot says “change, change, change,” Clinton should add a solemn “Amen.” If Clinton attacks Perot now, he runs the risk of losing the labels of change and of being an outsider--the same two labels that will be his biggest fall assets.

The challenge for Clinton’s campaign is to position itself on this wave of change and to prepare to grab it when, and if, Perot fades. At some point, the question will become: “What kind of change?” Clinton is prepared to answer the question; I don’t believe Perot is. And whether the American people will accept an untested, unknown and inexperienced Texas billionaire as leader of this country is still unknown.

But if the American people do decide to take that ultimate roll of the dice, Clinton has lost anyway. But, as I suspect, if Perot fades to about 20%, Clinton must be able to claim the message he left behind.

Clinton must take advantage of what Perot has given him. He should take a page out of his trip to the San Diego shipyard. People expect little from him. So when they see him at his best, they are surprised and converted.

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Perot will not define the Democratic campaign in the next two months. The selection of Clinton’s vice president and the success of the Democratic Convention are what should receive the focus of the campaign’s energy. They are silver linings in these days of dark clouds.


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