After New Hampshire, no one can doubt that George Bush must recast his presidency _ not just his campaign, but his government _ if he is going to win a second term. And after New Hampshire, it is equally certain that the Democratic Party is finally ready for change.
Those two big facts emerge from a primary election that holds out hope that both the voters and the news media are ready to make 1992 the serious and substantive choice of national direction that should have been offered in 1988.
The credit should go to the voters. Beset by a recession, they are unblinkingly realistic and ruthlessly intolerant of empty rhetoric.
Bush could not have made a bigger mistake than to come campaigning on the final weekend before the vote with Hollywood star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Fantasy macho doesn't substitute for resolute, real-world action.
The president was undeservedly lucky that contentious TV commentator Patrick Buchanan was his main opponent. Half of Buchanan's voters said in the exit polls that they wished another choice had been available to them. Had a Republican with a record containing more governmental credentials and without bigoted utterances been on the ballot, Bush might well have been beaten by the very Republican voters who rescued his candidacy here in the 1988 primary.
The problem is not the Bush campaign. The problem is a presidency that refuses to come to grips with what more and more voters recognize as the challenge facing the United States _ reclaiming our fiscal discipline, our educational and scientific edge, our working skills and our competitive ability.
The Democrats realize the source of Bush's vulnerability and the size of the opportunity it presents. That is why they are rejoicing that six out of 10 New Hampshire voters in their primary chose the candidates with the most substantial alternatives to Bush's inadequate policies. Because they had thoughtful programs to offer, former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the two leaders, overcame obstacles that in most years would have doomed their bids.
In other years, Tsongas' mumbling style and his medical history would have made him the most implausible of contenders. In most years, Clinton would have been scuttled by the personal stories that swirled around him.
In time, these weaknesses may enable Bush to beat either of these men. But this is no ordinary year. This year, the voters want real answers. Tsongas and Clinton were the two Democrats who entered the race with a backlog of experience they had distilled into serious suggestions for ways to change the economic and social dynamic that is dragging America down.
Their proposals challenge Democratic orthodoxy. They are prepared to think and talk about a different relationship between government and the private economy _ Tsongas' strong point _ and about a different, non-New Deal approach to social problems _ Clinton's forte.
New Hampshire has done its job. Now, we'll see if the rest of the country can do as well.
Washington Post Writers Group