Clinton woos middle class with mainstream message On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

October 04, 1991|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- There is nothing subtle about Bill Clinton's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The underlying premise is that the middle class is ready to rise up after 12 years of Republicanism in the White House.

To some extent, this is making a virtue of a necessity. The Democratic Party cannot hope to regain the presidency unless it reverses the flow of middle-class voters who have come to see the party as a captive of such special constituencies as blacks, organized labor and welfare clients. And any Democrat recognizes he must change the subject from President Bush's successes in foreign affairs and back to such domestic concerns as the economy, health care and education.

Thus, it was no surprise that in a 31-minute speech declaring his candidacy on the steps of the old state capitol here, Clinton referred to the "middle class" or "working class" 17 times.

"This is not just a campaign for the presidency," he said. "It is a campaign for the future, for the forgotten hard-working middle-class families of America, for their children and for all who deserve a government that works for them."

The speech was clearly designed to position the 45-year-old Arkansas governor in the political center in his contest against two rivals, Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who are considered his principal competitors for the nomination and viewed as more liberal.

Like Kerrey three days earlier, Clinton stressed the opportunity for generational change. And like Kerrey, he made the obligatory appeals to activist Democrats who tend to be liberal. He accused Republicans of trying to divide the nation race against race and promised he would not allow President Bush to exploit the race issue against him as Bush did against Michael Dukakis in 1988.

"We know all about race-baiting," he said. "I understand this tactic and I will not let them get away with it in 1992."

Clinton reiterated his support for abortion rights, reform of the health-care system, fairer tax laws, improved education and protection of the environment. But he also stressed his theme of greater citizen responsibility -- an approach that translates in the political lexicon into as great a concern for the taxpayer as for the disadvantaged consumers of tax money.

Clinton said every American must be asked "to assume personal responsibility for the future of our country. The government owes our people more opportunity but we all have to make the most of it through responsible citizenship. We should insist that people move from welfare rolls to work roles. We should give people on welfare the skills they need to succeed, then insist that everybody who can work go to work and become a productive member of society.

Clinton, again like Kerrey, avoided harsh frontal assaults on President Bush. Instead, he spoke repeatedly of 12 years of Republican rule that favored the wealthy at the expense of the middle class and ignored domestic problems because of being preoccupied abroad.

Clinton's approach reflected opinion polling data that show voters lack confidence in their economic prospects and are anxious to see the government pay less attention to foreign affairs and more to domestic concerns.

"I want the American people to know that a Clinton administration will defend our national interests abroad, put their values into our social policy at home and spend their tax money with discipline," he said. "We'll put government back on the side of the working-class families who think most of the help goes to those at the top of lthe ladder, some goes to the bottom and no one stands up for them."

Clinton, the fifth declared Democratic candidate, is only 45 but he has been on the national political stage almost since his first election to the governorship here in 1978, and he gave serious thought to running for president in 1988.

He had been seen as a conventional Southern liberal until he became increasingly active in the Democratic Leadership Council, the organization of centrist-to-conservative Democrats, and began emphasizing the need for his party to insist on paying more attention to the middle-class reaction against big spending and liberal social programs. That was clearly the message as he took the final step into the campaign of 1992.

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