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THE MISSING ISSUES // What would Clinton win?

With a relentlessness that has frustrated his opponents, President Clinton has co-opted the Republicans on one issue after another. Who says a Democrat can't slash the deficit, cut back on big government, support family values, cut taxes and take a hard line on crime _ or even agree to sign a punishing welfare bill that offends a lot of Democratic true believers?

Through a strategy called "triangulation," he has taken a kind of straddling position between the Democratic and Republican camps that has helped deflect much of the Republican attack. It might have been a vulnerable position if the Republicans had countered with a strong campaign that presented the most popular parts of their agenda crisply, clearly and in harmony. But the president's opponents have so far lacked that kind of energy, initiative and organization. Indeed, at this point the Democrats' greatest strength may be their opponents' weakness.

As strong as the president is now, however, I have a concern _ not about whether he will win, but about what, precisely, a victory will win for him . . . and for America. What kind of mandate for progress will his political success supply?

Triangulation is an exquisitely pragmatic strategy that carefully selects positions _ some of them distinctly conservative _ that have worked marvelously well to parry Republican thrusts. It also allows the president to stand firm on key Democratic issues, such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and a woman's right to choose. In effect, it is a chart that allows the president to step across troubled political waters a stone at a time, choosing a step to the right, a step to the left, then a step to the right again. But it does not necessarily lead us to a more upwardly mobile middle class or rescue those in poverty.

It doesn't deal vigorously with education or training or fairer trade or incentives to corporations to help reduce the growing gap between owners and investors on the one hand and workers on the other. Beyond the salutary effect of deficit reduction, it leaves the president with nothing much to offer those who believe growth will require greater investment by both the private sector and government. Any proposal like that smacks of too much government.

To deal with the concerns of middle-class workers and of the seekers further down the ladder, we need to do a lot more than we are doing. For a start, we need much more education and training; we need to devise a free trade policy that's fair to American workers; we need to provide more secure and affordable health care; encourage pay for performance and profit-sharing plans; ensure pensions; and continue to boost technological advancement.

Getting all that done _ especially with a hostile Congress _ will require a mandate, an undeniable tide of popular support for particular actions. Yet none of these proposals has so far become a significant part of this year's campaign debate.

Some of these ideas, such as the need to invest in education, have certainly been mentioned by the president from time to time. But the months-old applause of a few scattered audiences will not sound like a mandate in November. If Clinton is not only to win but win the popular power to move the country forward again, he needs to stamp his campaign with a major, emphatic, concerted commitment to sound, popular specific action, so that in voting for him the people can also be heard as telling Congress what to do.

What if Clinton were to build his campaign on his strong and long-standing record of commitment to educational excellence? What if Clinton were to commit to using his second term to do for American education what John Kennedy did for the space program _ to put us on the road to becoming the best-educated, best-trained people in the world _ and promised to report on our progress at least once a month for four years? A lot of what needs to be done does not cost money, but some investment would be necessary: The information superhighway is, after all, a toll road. Public school infrastructure needs repairs that local governments cannot afford. Increasing the 180-day school year we now require to match the 200 to 240 days of our competitors' children will cost money. But education needn't be a budget buster _ any more than the space program has been.

More important, a major national commitment to education would help exorcise a number of our demons at once. What other single thing could we do that would help make us more competitive globally, raise our standard of living, improve the prospects of the poor and inspire a sense of national pride?

It appears now, however, that Clinton's comfortable lead in the polls will leave him reluctant to do anything beyond what he has already pledged. If so, he will wind up, in effect, running on his good record, on his image as the mitigator of the Republicans' harshness, negativism and divisiveness _ and the weakness of the other side.

That's enough to make him president again, but it will not give him the lift he needs to surmount the obstacle of an intransigent Republican Congress.

Mario Cuomo is the former governor of New York. This piece is adapted from the new postscript to his book, Reason to Believe.

Newsday

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