BILL CLINTON WINS A NARROW VICTORY IN WASHINGTON, BUT HIS PRESIDENCY IS NOT PLAYING IN THE HEARTLAND
CUTTING A POOR IMAGE
BILL CLINTON WINS A NARROW VICTORY IN WASHINGTON, BUT HIS PRESIDENCY IS NOT PLAYING IN THE HEARTLAND
The decision came in time to make the late news, sandwiched between the hyping of Steven Spielberg’s latest spellbinder, Jurassic Park, and the diminishing prospects of a Michael Jordan/Charles Barkley showdown in the NBA championships. The U.S. House of Representatives had approved President Bill Clinton’s $500-billion deficit-reduction plan, and sent it on to the Senate. The victory was cause for celebration in the White House, where it was counted on to reverse a steady erosion in Clinton’s popularity. But beyond the Washington Beltway, the win by a squeaky six-vote margin seemed a meagre success to set against months of disarray, indecision and apparent preoccupation with issues far removed from the economic focus of the 1992 election campaign. In Arlington, Texas, Kelly Wade, young and out of work, captured the disillusionment felt by many
heartland voters who, like her, sided with Clinton last November. “He’s a small-town little boy and he’s trying to play big politics and he doesn’t know what he’s doing,” she said. “Washington has eaten his lunch for him.” Capital pundits, certainly, had been slicing and dicing Clinton’s performance for weeks. Assessments like that of The Washington Post, which called the President “vacillating and vulnerable,” have helped drive Clinton’s approval ratings down to record lows for a leader barely four months into his first term. The President’s aides plainly hoped that last week’s House victory would restore vital momentum that Clinton has lost to distractions ranging from his indecision over intervention in Bosnia to gay rights in the U.S. military. But even if he regains his stride, Clinton’s ambitious programs of gradual deficit reduction and sweeping health reform defy easy sale to American voters,
accustomed to ingesting their politics in sound-bite-size pieces.
Still, White House strategists had reason to take pleasure in the narrow, but sufficient, vote in favor of Clinton’s deficit package. The measure, made up of roughly equal amounts of tax increases and spending reductions, is designed to cut the federal deficit by half over the next five years. Its endorsement in the House—where 38 Democrats defected to join 175 Republicans in opposition—still left the measure, part of an overall budget of $1.5 trillion, facing an uncertain future in the Senate. But even the partial congressional victory was a welcome change from the administration’s troubled recent record.
Until last week, the White House had appeared mired in increasing ineptitude and irresolution. Clinton’s bold campaign pronouncement that the United States “must do more” to relieve the suffering in Bosnia quickly became bogged down in the reluctance of both the U.S. military and its European allies to intervene in the former Yugoslavia. By last week, the Bosnian initiative had been all but abandoned. On the domestic front, outnumbered Republicans in the Senate, under the wily direction of Minority Leader Robert Dole of Kansas, forced the president to withdraw a $15.4-billion economic stimulus package in the face of a filibuster. The White House is now trying again: a modest proposal for just $842 million in stimulus is now before the House.
On another front, Clinton’s appointments have proceeded relatively smoothly since his first two choices for attorney general were brought down by their past hiring of illegal immigrants as domestic help. But several of his nominees reflected a more strident liberalism than expected from a candidate who presented himself as a non-ideological “New Democrat.” That impression was reinforced last week when the Senate confirmed Roberta Achtenberg, an outspoken lesbian, to a senior public housing position, and the White House nominated Lani Guinier, who in the past has endorsed the explosive concept of racial quo-
tas, as the country’s top civil-rights official.
Adding to Clinton’s woes is the perception that he is out of touch, surrounded by an inexperienced and inept staff. An investigation of the White House travel office, which arranges trips for journalists, was launched after the President’s close friend, Hollywood television producer Harry Thomason, acting on behalf of travel-business associates, tipped off the administration to possible business irregularities in the office. Amid conflicting explanations, seven staff members were fired on May 19 for what White House spokesman Dee Dee Myers claimed was “gross mismanagement.” But after it was revealed that the White House had enlisted the aid of the FBI in the investigation, Dole accused the administration of political interference, and five of the seven dismissals were reversed.
By then, Clinton had succeeded in turning even an ordinary haircut into a fresh image problem. His decision to use Cristophe, an exclusive $200-a-cut Beverly Hills hairdresser, to do the trim jarred badly with his carefully nurtured image as an unpretentious guy-next-door. It did not help that the haircut was done aboard Air Force One while the presidential Boeing 747 idled at Los Angeles International Airport, obliging officials to close two runways and delay several flights. By last week, more than half of Americans polled disapproved of Clinton’s performance—the earliest point in a first term that any U.S. president had achieved that dubious distinction.
Among Kelly Wade’s neighbors in Arlington, a leafy and prosperous bedroom community between Dallas and Fort Worth best known as the home of baseball’s American League Texas Rangers, the dismay with Clinton was plain. “He was a Trojan Horse,” protested insurance salesman Steven Pugh. “I think he showed very early in his agenda that he was very concerned about liberal issues and not centrist ones.” Said part-time card store clerk Mary Bevilacqua of the President’s image problems: “He’s not working very hard at it is he, with this latest haircut?” Added engineering technician Michael Shores: “His ideas don’t represent the mainstream of America.”
The most savage criticism leveled at Clinton’s struggling presidency, though, came from diminutive Texan billionaire Ross Perot. Perot, the third-party candidate who received 19 million votes in last November’s election, coyly declines to confirm any future presidential ambitions. Still, he has stumped steadily in recent weeks on behalf of his Dallas-based United We Stand America movement, repeatedly targeting the White House with pungent salvos of disdain. Commenting in a television interview last week on Clinton’s uncertain grip on the presidency, Perot bitingly observed that “if you were interviewing him for your company, you wouldn’t consider giving him a job anywhere above middle management.” Only the most rabidly partisan of observers are ready to write off Clinton’s presidency as doomed to irrelevance by its early missteps. “This is a night to celebrate,” former President Ronald Reagan told one audience last month, “because as you dine together, Democrats are making the mistakes that guarantee Republicans will be in the White House for the next 25 years.”
But other political experts and most ordinary voters seemed inclined to give Clinton
time to salvage his struggling presidency. “This has been a rude awakening,” said Thomas Mann, the director of governmental studies at Washington’s nonpartisan Brookings Institution. “You will see a more formidable President.” Arlington secretary Ann Rivers, who did not vote for Clinton, meanwhile acknowledged: “I’d like to see him given a chance—he’s been bushwhacked by his own party.”
Clinton does have time to repair
his bumbling image: more than 3V2 years remain in his term. But the United States’ peculiar political calendar means that he must demonstrate that he is back in control quickly, or risk losing much of his scope for action. Onethird of the U.S. Senate stands for re-election next year, with a disproportionate number of the seats at stake in the mid-term election
held by marginally popular Democrats. Failure to hold on to the party’s 14-vote edge in the 100-seat chamber would deliver the more powerful of Congress’s two houses into the hands of
the obstreperous and keenly partisan Dole.
Clinton’s complex and ambitious agenda will make his political recovery doubly difficult. He has pinned his presidency on successfully tackling big issues: reduction of a deficit bloated by two decades of overspending, and a sweeping reorganization of how the U.S government operates. Under the stewardship of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, he also wants to reform a health-care system that is twice the size of Canada’s entire economy. These are not simple tasks, and none of Clinton’s proposed remedies is easy to explain in the short television clips that are the staple of American political discourse.
As a result, his message frequently fails to get through. That was evident last week in Arlington, where technician Michael Shores insisted that Clinton’s program amounted to “tax increases and no deficit reduction.” Shores wants a balanced budget this year—a goal that most experts dismiss as unrealizable. Acknowledging last week that “we’ve done a lousy job of being able to cut through the fog that surrounds this town,” Clinton finally acted. On May 29, he reached outside his own party to name a veteran Republican aide, David Gergen, as his communications director.
Gergen is likely to have a difficult first week. A presidential public address planned for May 31 at Washington’s Vietnam memorial threatened only to underscore Clinton’s strained relations with the military—and to remind voters that their commander-inchief avoided serving during that conflict. And voters in a special run-off election in Texas on June 5, appeared to be ready to send Republican Kay Bailey-Hutchison to the Senate to replace former senator Lloyd Bentsen, now Clinton’s treasury secretary.
That would be the first time this century that voters in that state had closed Democrats out of their Senate delegation. In addition to political embarrassment, that outcome would reduce the Democrats’ slim upper house majority to just 12 votes on the eve of the Senate’s consideration of Clinton’s deficit-reduction package. And all of those Democrats cannot be counted on to support his plan.
Adroit compromise on the Senate floor may yet save the President’s deficit program. But even that may do little to restore Clinton’s waning authority. In the television-driven metaphors of American politics, conciliators cannot be heroes. Charles Barkley does not settle for partial victory; there is no prize given at the Super Bowl for the team that meets the other halfway. To secure the essence of the changes that he desires and has promised, Clinton is now likely to be forced to give up much else that he once hoped to win. And in America, if you are not seen to be winning, you are most definitely losing.
CHRIS WOOD in Arlington with HILARY MACKENZIE in Washington
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