THE GHOSTS OF ELECTIONS PAST

On New Year's Eve we have long played a parlor game called Desert Island: Which book would you take if you could take only one? Which movie, which CD? In a self-serving move--because you never know what al dente idea will stick to the wall of columnizing--I asked our guests this year which Democratic presidential candidate they would take with them. I won't be specific about the outcome, but I can say the response to the current field was so unenthusiastic that two people plumped for a Clinton draft--one Hillary, one Bill.

These were not apathetic voters; we were on the West Side of Manhattan, where people look at politics the way a python looks at mice. And many were members of a hard-core group I think of as the ABBAs; their mantra is "anyone but Bush again." But even they were finding the race so far dispiriting, a diffuse collection of possibles who were not quite coming into focus as definites, or even probables.

The good news, for those currently so dissatisfied, is that this is par for the course. Any good reporter pulls the clips before sitting down to write, and the clips from the last presidential race comparable to this one--I'm sorry, I can't count the extended torment of poor Bob Dole--illustrate that point. Bill Clinton was the front runner in accounts published this time 12 years ago, but there was considerable doubt about whether his lead would hold up and whether it was largely manufactured by reporters who, in the words of veteran political columnist Jack Germond, "have trouble accommodating more than two candidates and chewing gum at the same time." Paul Tsongas, Lord rest his soul, was surging because of his economic smarts, but, as Washington Post political writer Dan Balz noted, "he lacks the fire and energy voters often demand." Kerrey still had hopes--that's Kerrey with an additional E, the Nebraska senator and Vietnam vet, not the Massachusetts one currently vying for the job.

Same time, same story, at least in its broad strokes. Circa early 1992 the nomination was still up for grabs, so much so that there were notable write-in efforts, for Mario Cuomo (doomed) and Ralph Nader (don't get me started). But more than anything else, there was a sense of a public not quite engaged, still unsure of who was who. Plus ca change, as they say in a nation once one of our allies. While the candidates had been at it for months, attending cocktail parties, refining stump speeches and participating in so many debates that it seemed they were enrolled in a particularly rigorous high-school forensics class, the public hadn't been paying that much attention.

But the 1992 race had the kind of spoiler whom this year's Democratic contenders can't count on as they move forward, one pushing the other aside with the sharp hip of the polls. That spoiler was Pat Buchanan. He ran as the anti-Bush, an antidote to an incumbent the right wing of the Republican Party found too mushily moderate.

Which brings us back to the ABBAs. There's no doubt that the hopes of some Democrats for the White House dovetail with their contempt for the incumbent; certainly a sizable chunk of the electorate seems to loathe Bush, perhaps as sizable as the number who hated Clinton. That's a whole lot of hatred. There will be a sizable group who would vote for Jerry Lewis if he were running against the president.

But a campaign that is purely reactive never really feels like an exercise in leadership. And if the lodestar of this race becomes ABBA, it is likely to be not only unsuccessful but as dispiriting to the voters as the notion of being marooned with one of the candidates was to my dinner guests. Opposing positions is one thing; merely becoming the anti-incumbent makes the incumbent the standard. And, too often, the winner.

That's in the clips, too. In 1992 Clinton emerged as distinct and somewhat different, a moderate Democrat with a streak of pragmatism as considerable as his appetites. (At the time, his appetites were a breaking story, the issue whether Gennifer Flowers would sink him. How naive it all seems in light of future developments!) It's Buchanan who largely served as the un-Bush. Clinton's positions were most often described, not in terms of his differences with the president, but in terms of his differences with conventional liberal Democratic doctrine. Fast-forward: this won him first the nomination, then the election.

That first rough draft of history known as journalism teaches us that the field will narrow soon and the voters will begin to pay more attention. Which means it is the moment for the front runners to become active, not reactive. What would happen if each one spent a month acting as if the incumbent did not exist, telling his story to the American people in terms of what he would do and who he is rather than what he would not do and who he is not? (And would the press even cover that? Column to follow.) If these were our sons and this was indeed forensics class, that is precisely how we would advise them to proceed. Otherwise they all may wind up on a desert island of their own making, alone beneath shady palm fronds of second thoughts.