Clinton offers Dems a conservative alternative On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

October 09, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

DOVER, N.H. — BILL CLINTON, opening his campaign for the New Hampshire presidential primary, says: "I don't want to be type-cast as the conservative candidate." In fact, within the political community that label already, almost inevitably, has been applied to the 45-year-old Arkansas governor. And the fact that has happened means that Clinton's candidacy offers clear test of the proposition that the the right conservative could win a Democratic primary here.

Some Democrats would argue that it happened in 1976 when Jimmy Carter won the primary against a field that included such devout liberals as Morris Udall, Fred Harris and Birch Bayh. But that campaign was never waged on anything that

might be called ideological differences. More to the point, the term "liberal" was not suspect with any substantial segment of the Democratic Party 15 years ago -- meaning before the disastrous defeats of Walter F. Mondale and Michael S. Dukakis and the rise of the middle-class reaction against traditional social programs.

That Clinton is seen as a "conservative" today is a little puzzling to those who have followed his career since he was elected governor at the age of 32 in 1978. He has been a strong supporter of civil rights and abortion rights. He has been a consistent proponent of activist government to solve social and economic problems. He is identified most with a reform of the school system in Arkansas, hardly a conservative enterprise.

But there are two factors that have typecast Clinton this year. One is a matter of identification. He has been a leading player in the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), an organization created as a reaction to unfettered liberalism. And here in New Hampshire his two best-known supporters are George Bruno, a former state party chairman who backed Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, the conservative candidate du jour four years ago, and John Broderick, a Manchester lawyer who took the lead in organizing a state chapter of the DLC.

But Clinton nourished the notion that he is a "different" Democrat by his emphasis on what he calls "personal responsibility" as an essential element in building a socially and economically healthy society. When he tells his Democratic audiences that welfare recipients must be expected to work and that youngsters who drop out of school for no good reason should lose their drivers' licenses, he is sending a clear message that he is trying to set himself apart as a different Democrat.

In fact, most of Clinton's message is essentially indistinguishable from that of Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who is considered -- along with Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa -- his principal rival for support here.

Clinton also attacks the excesses and insensitivity he sees in 12 years of Republicans in the White House. The "most irresponsible" people in the 1980s, Clinton argues, have been "those at the top of the totem pole" who have profited while the middle class paid the bills for scandals and business failures.

In New Hampshire, the perception of Clinton as the conservative in the Democratic field seems to offer him two prime constituencies. One is blue-collar Democrats in Manchester and Nashua who have always been culturally more conservative than a George McGovern or Fritz Mondale or Gary Hart. The other is the population of relative newcomers to the state who live in the "southern crescent" bordering Mas

sachusetts and are just the kind of younger, white-collar voters who have been deserting the party in such large numbers in the last two presidential elections.

For both of these groups, Clinton's emphasis on protecting the middle class has some obvious appeal, particularly at a time when the New Hampshire economy is staggering, as it most assuredly is doing right now.

It is far too early to tell how successfully Clinton will exploit his opportunity. In his first appearances here he has shown a coherent message and a comfortable campaign style. But organizationally he is clearly trailing both Kerrey and Harkin. And some Democrats believe that former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts may be more of a factor than the conventional wisdom suggests.

The one thing clear at the moment is that, like it or not, Bill Clinton is offering New Hampshire what passes for a conservative alternative in the Democratic Party these days.

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