Don't be misled by the petty, negative, disingenuous and just plain unappealing tone of this presidential campaign. This election matters. There are significant differences between the candidates and important issues that the next president will have to confront.  Whether he is Bob Dole or Bill Clinton will make a difference.

The nation is going through two profound transitions, in foreign and economic policy, and the volatility of our politics is at least partly explained by the uncertainty of our times. The end of the Cold War has raised questions about the role the United States should play in the world and how it should use its power. The advent of an information-based economy has raised questions about whether American workers can maintain their standard of living and compete in a global market. These are subjects worthy of a great national debate. The same goes for an issue that has defined so much of our politics this century, how to achieve equal opportunity for African-Americans.

The reason voters are angry and disappointed with both the campaign and the candidates is that Clinton and Dole have largely ignored these questions. Rather, they have offered 30-second negative sound bites, pain-free palliatives, happy talk and hugs. No challenges, not enough substance. No wonder so many Americans are turned off.

Dole chose to base his campaign on an across-the-board 15-percent cut in income tax rates and the underlying proposition that he is a better person than Clinton. But, as has been pointed out repeatedly, his economic numbers do not add up. He cannot cut taxes, preserve middle-class entitlements and increase defense spending, as he has promised, and still balance the budget. Something will have to give, and in recent history it has been promises to cut the budget deficit every time. And Dole's position implies a wholesale dismantling of the federal government. Is that what he really wants? How does it relate to his commitment to the neediest and the disabled? Dole can't square the circle.  It's Not the Senate

Dole's attacks on Clinton's character have more of a ring of truth, but they do not cut politically in the absence of a better sense of how he plans to govern the nation. Dole has been an effective senator and often demonstrated a willingness to forgo ideology to solve problems. But as this campaign has progressed, we have become less certain that the traits that made him a success in Congress would serve him well in the White House. The abilities to barter and cajole in the small, exclusive club that is the U.S. Senate are different from the talents it takes to guide a large, diverse nation.

Indeed, Dole is proving that they are different from the talents it takes to run a presidential campaign. His effort has been, frankly, pathetic. He does not delegate well and tries to run too much out of his back pocket. We are alarmed by his lack of intellectual suppleness and his inability to put more than two sentences together as a coherent whole. His rationale for being president is that it's his turn. There is no vision, no indication he understands the fundamental problems facing the nation. Bashing the United Nations and cutting taxes are pretty flimsy prescriptions for the ailments facing America.  He just has not made the case that he should be president.  Understanding the Challenges

For all of our problems with the undisciplined manner in which Clinton has run his administration and our concern about the charges of ethical misconduct circling him and his wife, we must acknowledge that Clinton understands the challenges facing the nation. He is intellectually one of the brightest presidents in modern times and one of the most articulate. And his record is better than his sloppy, sometimes unfocused style of governing would have led us to expect. Is Clinton solely responsible for the strong economic performance of the last four years? Of course not. The Federal Reserve Board has more direct impact on the economy than the White House and, more important, the economy was headed for a recovery anyway. But Clinton did the right things to foster the recovery. Although no one likes higher taxes, Clinton understood that taxation was the only way to credibly lower the deficit. And he took on the core of his own party - the unions - to push through fundamentally important free-trade agreements. Both are examples of Clinton's willingness to take politically unpopular steps.

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He also recognized that rising health-care costs and gaps in coverage were issues that should be dealt with, even if his proposal turned out to be colossally wrongheaded. He broke a decades-long standoff on gun control, lightened the tax burden on the working poor, boosted the minimum wage and won less ambitious but important health-care reforms that will allow workers who change jobs to keep their coverage. He stood up to the Newt Gingrich extremists in the 104th Congress, preventing an ideologically-driven dismantling of programs that protect the poor and preserve middle-class security. And he kept his promise to change welfare. Although we do not like the final results, Clinton signed the welfare bill only after vetoing two even worse versions sent to him by the Republican Congress. Politically, the decision was a masterstroke - it wiped out a major issue that Dole could have used against him and did more than anything else to define Clinton as a New Democrat.

Government, Not Big Government

Behind all Clinton's actions is a continuing belief that government can still do good. Do we fear that, free of re-election concerns, he will revert to being a Big Government Democrat? Not really. The government is broke and can't afford new Big Government programs, and Congress, even if it winds up with a slim Democratic majority, will be centrist. There's not much room on the left for Clinton if he wants to be effective in a second term.

Clinton's record on foreign policy has been disappointing but not disastrous. His approach has been ad hoc. He has spent too much time on peripheral matters, Haiti and Bosnia, for example, and not enough on the central issues: China and Russia. His proposal to add East European nations to NATO is ill-conceived (but Dole's plan is even worse), and his use of power has been uncertain - a serious problem. He needs to develop a clearer vision of how this country should relate to the rest of the world.

Questions of Character

Having said that, we have reservations about Clinton.

For all his intelligence and his amazing ability to campaign and connect with audiences, there is a disquieting sense that he has tried so hard to be all things to all people that there is nothing left at the center of the man. He seems driven by an all-consuming ambition for "political viability," as he once put it himself - a narcissistic compulsion that obliterates policy considerations. Of course there is a need in politics to adjust to shifting winds and currents in a diverse, complex nation like ours. But does Clinton have a destination other than his own re-election?

Once there are no more campaigns to run, no more hands to grasp, what will motivate this man who has been running for office since he was in junior high school? History? Maybe. But because he has avoided talking about the most serious issues facing the nation during this campaign, even a big victory will not mean a specific mandate to do anything. And the charges of improprieties from Little Rock to Washington continue to hover. Who cannot be bothered by his sloppy business dealings and unwise associations from his days in Arkansas, or the appearance of FBI files of former Republican officials in the White House? It would be terrible for the country if Whitewater matters came to dominate a second term.

In the end, an endorsement is a relative decision. Will Bob Dole or Bill Clinton be better able to deal with the profound changes, domestic and foreign, facing this nation during the next four years? We believe Clinton, warts and all, is more qualified to do the job. Newsday endorses William Jefferson Clinton for president.