With State of Union, Campaign ’96 Is Away : Race begins in earnest with Clinton and Dole addresses


Campaign ’96 began in earnest Tuesday night with President Clinton’s State of the Union address. His hourlong speech was followed by a briefer Republican response, this year by Clinton’s presumed opponent in November, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.

At times it seemed that both the president and Dole were in a parallel universe, speaking of a reality totally different from the one evident to most Americans: The president called on Americans to work together, while he’s in the longest and most acrimonious budget battle ever with Congress; Dole spoke repeatedly and dismissively of the “elites” in charge when he’s been a member of the power elite in Congress for 36 years.

MASTER SALESMAN: But who said that an election year is about consistency? What it will be about, it’s now clear, is a sale of the competing visions of the two major political parties. And on that score, Clinton in his address was the master salesman. He was persuasive in returning to a theme of 1992, a sort of mix of traditional Democratic activist government that helps the needy and traditional Republican virtues of self-reliance and family values. Thus a promise to help every American achieve economic security was offered to “every American who is willing to work.”


Clinton’s political instincts that drive him to always want to appear reasonable were on display Tuesday night: “The era of big government is over,” he declared, adding “but we cannot go back to a time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.” Who could disagree with that? Therein is an example of Clinton’s eagerness to please that has often weakened him as president but strengthens him as a candidate.

Clinton’s announced executive order to deny federal contracts to businesses that hire illegal immigrants was one of the presidential proposals that is eminently reasonable--as far as it goes. The real test of the effectiveness of the policy will be in its implementation: Will subcontractors be policed? Are there enough federal investigators to actually enforce the order?

Broad pro-education themes sounded in the speech are usual winners in any political address. Thus the president’s proposal to provide a $1,000 merit scholarship to the top 5% of graduates in every high school and to make up to $10,000 a year in college tuition tax-deductible will probably be popular ideas, although not with this Congress.

A similar idea was Clinton’s “GI Bill for American Workers,” which would make available $2,600 from job training funds as vouchers to unemployed workers.

FAMILY VALUES: The “family values” theme, once so derided by Democrats, has been embraced now by the president, who asked for a requirement for a so-called v-chip in television sets to allow parents to screen out inappropriate shows for children. And he invited media and entertainment leaders to come to the White House to discuss “concrete ways to improve what our children see on television.”

There’s little difference between what Clinton said and what a vilified former Vice President Dan Quayle called for four years ago. But the culture issue, one hit with success this year by Dole, is another traditionally GOP issue that was fused effectively in Clinton’s speech Tuesday.


Dole’s response to Clinton’s address was generally stiff, with predictable attacks on liberal judges and big government. Dole’s best line, “the core of conviction where we keep our conscience,” may well turn out to be a theme for him this year as he seeks to unseat a president who has shown again that he is very good in a campaign. And the campaign is on full blast.