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Hyperbole is battle cry of Democrats and Republicans

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LOS ANGELES — Not a scintilla of modesty mars the purity of President Clinton's self-celebration during his interminable strut off the national stage, as in Monday night's convention speech and others.

Refusing to temper enthusiasm about himself with realism about his times, he recently said he wants to be remembered as "the president that led America from the industrial era into the information age." That is, absent him, we would be stuck in January 1993 — well into the information age, come to think about it.

Best not to think about the claims that define this deeply conservative Democratic campaign, the theme of which is, "Don't let Republicans change it." The antecedent of the pronoun can be almost anything (Social Security, public education, affirmative action, the Supreme Court — whatever).

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of Robert Kennedy, currently Maryland's lieutenant governor and probably its future governor, is an archetypal "New Democrat." She boasts that Democrats have produced a budget surplus for paying down the national debt, fought crime and lowered trade barriers. And recently one-third of House Democrats voted to repeal — not trim, repeal — the estate tax. And Al Gore has doubled the size of his proposed tax cut, to two-thirds the size of the House Republicans' cut that Clinton vetoed last year because it was, he said, reckless.

So how do New Democrats differ from everyday Republicans? In choice of hyperbole. For example, Townsend says:

"We share the memory of the terrible recession of the early '90s. It was a time of dormancy and decay, when too many Americans gave up on one core tenet of the American faith: that their children's lives would be better than their own."

Gosh. All that tenet-abandoning caused by just three-quarters of negative growth in the mildest downturn in the past three decades of the 20th century. Democrats argue that America has never been more robust, and its robustness, even its faith, has never been more fragile — just a Republican touch on the tiller can trigger tenet-shedding despair.

For years Democrats were the party of national hypochondria, telling the country that it was sick (with militarism, racism, indifference to poverty, etc.). But at this convention, seldom is heard a discouraging word. Not in 40 years — not since the last time the Democrats convened here — has there been less convention rhetoric about, for example, poverty. (In his 1961 Inaugural Address, the man who was nominated here in 1960 made no reference to domestic policy.)

True, Democrats talk incessantly about children, but their most important and insistently proclaimed policies (leaving Social Security essentially unchanged; adding a huge prescription drug entitlement to Medicare) would accelerate the transfer of wealth to the elderly — even though a smaller percentage of the elderly (10.5 percent) than children (19.9 percent) live in poverty. This change, too, is related to 1960, the election that brought a confluence of Boston's Charles River and the Potomac.

Kennedy's election was supposed to empower the professorate. As Godfrey Hodgson says in his new biography of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, liberalism then "saw political action as almost the executive arm of social science." Moynihan, one of the young intellectuals drawn to Kennedy's administration, later remembered expectations of "the direct transmission of social science into governmental policy." The subsequent decline of that confidence was directly related to the rise of conservatism.

Yet some of the radicalism of the later 1960s, much gentrified, has found expression in George W. Bush's campaign. Sixties radicalism was distinguished from earlier left-wingery by its preoccupation with ameliorating society's spiritual woes as much as, if not more than, its material conditions. This was, after all, the radicalism of children of privilege on comfortable campuses. And now it has a faint but discernible echo in Bush's promise of "prosperity with a purpose" for a nation "rich in possessions and poor in ideals."

Under the guidance of Bush, who spent his formative years in Midland, Texas, and passed through Yale untainted by European political philosophies, American conservatism is being given a more European cast. His conservative goals will be pursued by a strong state, using the tax code to promote particular behaviors, and federal incentives to influence such local matters as education.

And under Al Gore, who is nimble at dropping names of European intellectuals, American liberalism is shedding some of its kinship to European social democracy. The social engineering impulse — Hillary Clinton's health care fiasco may have been its final flaring — has been supplanted by celebration of economic growth, and the faith that "a rising tide lifts all boats." Who said that? John Kennedy.

Washington Post Writers Group