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Presidential politics has become an exercise in subtraction and division.

Just over five weeks are left - only 38 days for national decisionmaking - for the building of a consensus on Nov. 3 that will help solve some of the massive problems clouding the future.Yet the candidates busy themselves nattering about debate logistics, sending stuffed elephants to video babies and seeking to divide the voters.

Bill Clinton began airing the campaign's first negative television ads last week. At least they focus on a major issue, the economy, but they do little to build a mandate for Clinton's proposed solutions.

One ad is wholly negative; another offers merely generalizations, saying: "Let's give incentives to invest in new jobs. Let's spend more on education and training. Let's provide basic health care to all Americans."

President Bush's tack has been worse - skittering from one issue to another seeking to divide the nation, shaving off enough voters to deny Clinton a victory.

Four years ago, Bush and Michael Dukakis managed to campaign right through Election Day without proposing serious responses to the federal budget deficit or the savings and loan crisis.

There almost seemed an unspoken pact of silence because neither campaign could come up with an approach that would work to the advantage of the candidate. The result was that the campaign worked to the disadvantage of the people.

Now Clinton and Bush snipe at each other about the draft, "family values," abortion, bogyman lawyers and such while avoiding serious, idea-banging discussion of how to stimulate economic growth - short-term and long-term - how to cut the deficit and how to provide affordable health care for all Americans, not to mention what to do about education, the environment and a disgraceful level of poverty.

Even Clinton, who has organized his candidacy around the idea that he has solid proposals to offer, has not been pushed by Bush, the press or himself to flesh out his program in key areas. On health care and the deficit, for instance, if he does not supply far more detail he risks winning the presidency without a mandate to accomplish his goals.

It is true that some of the issues dominating the campaign are legitimate. Certainly the evidence that Clinton has fudged this year in describing how he avoided military service 20 years ago deserves examination, as does the evidence that Bush has fudged in describing his knowledge of Iran-Contra.

But the efforts from the Bush campaign to link the draft issue to a revisitation of the Vietnam War - the most divisive public event in the lives of most voting-age people - are reprehensible.

One thing at least seems clear: that what Clinton did to avoid Vietnam service is very little different, fundamentally, from what Dan Quayle did and from what thousands of less well-connected young men at the time did, or tried to do.

Even more unsettling is the growing evidence that Bush intends to make Clinton himself the ultimate "wedge" issue, that Bush will try to repeat his 1988 success in painting his opponent as elite, unconnected with regular people, a little strange, someone not to be trusted with the leadership of the nation.

You can hear it in Bush's repeated references to Oxford, as if winning a Rhodes Scholarship is something Clinton should be ashamed of. How cynical, especially from the man who was dropped off at private school by the family chauffeur.

But both candidates need to emphasize addition and multiplication - programmatically as well as rhetorically - if they expect to win not just a job but a mandate to govern.