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THIS YEAR'S presidential election is about much more than picking a leader for the next four years. It is about picking a direction for the next century.

After a rocky first two years -- marked by failure to shepherd through a health-care plan and appointments better suited to Little Rock -- President Clinton has now demonstrated that he knows the direction the country should take and has the skill to steer the course.

Clinton has grown in office. He retains the commitment to both fiscal responsibility and egalitarian social policy that always characterized him. But, particularly under the past two years' harsh discipline of dealing with a Congress opposed to most of his policies, he has also learned how to operate in Washington. Even without the rest of a generally positive record, he has earned a second term for his performance in holding back a host of damaging policies designed by a determined 1995 right-wing House leadership.

In this presidential race, Clinton should win voters' approval both on the strength of his own centrist vision and by virtue of Bob Dole's inability to articulate any consistent vision of his own. Dole has left some of his own past convictions behind to borrow too heavily from his party's right wing.

For the sake of moderation and balance, a vote for Clinton in 1996 is not a vote only for a leader basically in tune with most Americans' aspirations, but also for a national agenda they can find compatible.

In 1994, Americans stunned a complacent Democratic Party by voting Republican majorities into both houses of Congress. The neo-conservative Southern leaders who still dominate the GOP took their new power as a mandate to usher in an extreme agenda. They attacked environmental protections, fought moderate gun controls and advocated irresponsible tax cuts that would balloon the deficit. They tried to slash Medicare and opposed or attempted to shrink almost every form of societal investment, from school lunches to student loans and technology advancement. They attacked affirmative action and access to abortion.

When Clinton eventually got his bearings and began to use his veto pen, polls showed the public favoring his more moderate stance, and congressional leaders like Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey backed off from some of their most extreme positions and were defeated on others.

Their policies, however, have not gone away. The Contract With America survives in the Republican Party platform for this year's election. Dole, whose congressional record was far more moderate in the past, is firmly lashed to that platform and must ride it out like Ahab lashed to Moby Dick.

If he should win, Republicans will take it as a renewed mandate to return to the same agenda the public has rejected the last two years. The critical difference is that there would not be a president in the White House ready to wield his veto pen to negotiate away the worst excesses.

Balance in the Supreme Court

Nor, if Dole wins, would there be a president ready to ensure that the U.S. Supreme Court defends the Constitution and the social contract as Americans have come to understand it.

Right now the court has no liberal wing. There is a precarious balance between conservative ideologues and moderates, a balance that shifts from vote to vote. With at least two septuagenarian justices expected to retire soon, the vote for the presidency this year is also a vote on which way the high court should swing.

Overall in recent decades, the Supreme Court has been the best protector of the middle class against political excesses and against those who try to impose their morality on others. That protection could be shredded by more appointees in the mold of those named to the court by Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

Clinton has a track record in this regard. His Supreme Court appointees have proved to be thoughtful, deliberate jurists of high quality.

None of that is to say that Clinton has always made the right choices or stood firm enough. His support of the North American Free Trade Agreement -- which Republican leaders also supported -- left U.S. workers and communities vulnerable because of vast differences in social conditions between the United States and Mexico.

Equally troubling was his signature on a welfare bill wiping out New Deal safety nets while neither he nor anyone else has any inkling what will happen to the poor, including poor kids.

His early stumbling in office allows Republicans and right-wing talk show hosts to keep alive a swirl of controversy, innuendo and gossip about everything from an aide's suicide to the misuse of FBI files.

But for all of the accusations, all of the independent counsels and all of the tax money spent putting Bill and Hillary Clinton under a microscope, probers have yet to turn up any solid evidence that the president has done anything wrong.

While withstanding the scrutiny, Clinton has learned. The last two years have seen a turnaround, characterized administratively by the appointment of Leon Panetta as chief of staff and legislatively by the realization that over-reaching by the GOP after the 1994 landslide would indeed make the Oval Office "relevant."

The result was two government shutdowns that chastened Congress and led to negotiations for more money for social programs while the deficit remained on a downward path for the fourth year in a row -- something unheard of during the Reagan-Bush era.

It is that type of moderation that Americans seem to prefer and that will be essential when it comes to reshaping the troubled entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.

Now voters have to ask themselves whom they trust to tackle those tasks, to shape the Supreme Court, to strike the proper balance between free enterprise and social responsibility, and to see to it that the divisions between the haves and have-nots are bridged, not widened.

Dole's weak agenda

By all accounts, Bob Dole is a good and decent man. His comeback from war wounds that would have destroyed the spirit of a weaker man speaks volumes about his character. It will be remembered long after voters have forgotten that he gave in to right-wing pleas and mounted an attack campaign while abandoning his own long-held convictions on key issues.

But being a good person is not enough when one so willingly adopts bad ideas that would balloon the deficit and take the country down the wrong path. And any who wonder what a lame-duck Clinton would do in a second term have to wonder if Dole -- who's 73 now -- could be a lame duck in his first term.

The lack of energy, new ideas and conviction he has displayed on the campaign trail would be an open invitation for the vigorous framers of the Contract With America to run roughshod over his doubts in pursuit of all the things Clinton stopped them from doing.

Bob Dole's time has passed, partly because he no longer has the energy he once could have taken to national leadership, but also because he lacks the strength or will to resuscitate his own party's faltering wing of more moderate conservatism, where he was most at home.

The presidential vote Nov. 5 will determine more than which of two men, both intellectually capable and skilled in the ways of government, gets the job.

Voters should choose the centrist path of lower deficits and smaller government matched with strategic investments in social programs that help people in a changing economy and that protect cherished ideals. That requires a vote for President Clinton.

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