Gov. Bill Clinton's job last night was to persuade the American people that neither the Democratic Party nor its nominee for President was miscast to run the executive branch of the government of the United States of America. Whether the presidential candidate's acceptance speech did that job will not be finally decided until November. The important point about this major speech is not the instant overnight ratings but how it helps to set the overall tone of the Clinton campaign and influences the character of the debate in the coming battle for the White House.
To this end the Democratic nominee conveyed a very strong sense of mission and purpose, and challenged the incumbent President on a number of issues on which he is decidedly weak.
The first was the American economy. Whether U.S. economic growth would have been any more or less vigorous if a Democrat had been in the White House is a debater's question. But the fact is that in the last few years the economy has gotten worse, and Clinton fully reflected national anxieties in hammering that point home. Clinton also fairly raised the issue of the role of government in the resolution of social and economic problems. He likened George Bush to McClellan, the Union general who wouldn't attack in the Civil War. "George Bush," said Clinton, "if you won't use your power to help people, step aside. I will." But, by invoking the would-be catch-phrase "New Covenant," Clinton sought to distance himself from previous Democratic presidential nominees by emphasizing individual responsibility, as well as government's responsibility, to face up to social problems.
The candidate was moving in his descriptions of his family life, drawing on them to explain his thoughts about social values. The intent of that dimension of the address was to turn on its head the Republican attempt to monopolize the family-values issue.
All this will not prevent the Republican Party from trying to draw attention to Clinton's own unaddressed vulnerabilities. One of them is the question not so much of the role of government but its size. The Arkansas governor went to great pains to deny that there is a government program for every social problem. But even if he is completely sincere on this point, the hitch will be in persuading the voters that the Democratic Party shares that view, too. And of course any mention of family values inevitably exposes the candidate to GOP efforts to draw renewed attention to his own marital comportment.
Bill Clinton began his campaign as the party's official nominee on a strong footing. With Ross Perot's withdrawal from the race, it is now Clinton against Bush. Last night belonged to the man from Arkansas; next month the Republicans convene their convention and the hour will be George Bush's.