Does Clinton face a Democratic liberal litmus test? On Politics Today

Jack W.Germond and Jules Witcover

January 24, 1992|By Jack W.Germond and Jules Witcover

Manchester,N.H -- THERE was no mystery about why Tom Harkin went out of his way to attack Bill Clinton in that Democratic presidential candidates debate here the other night. Governor Clinton is leading in all the opinion polls while Senator Harkin is floundering among the also-rans.

Beyond that obvious motivation, however, Mr. Harkin was following a well-worn path in Democratic presidential primaries by trying to apply traditional lit mustests to any contender who strays even a step or two from liberal orthodoxy. The critical question for the Democratic Party is whether such attempts to employ a liberal veto power still have any meaning or, alternatively, whether Democrats have reached such a level of pragmatism that they are more concerned with winning the general election in November.

At the outset, there was considerable suspicion of Mr. Clinton among liberals. He was a southern governor who had become chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization relatively conservative party leaders. And the Arkansas governor was putting heavy stress on individual "responsibility" as part of the solution to welfare problems, an emphasis that could be interpreted as playing to the middle class at the expense of black welfare recipients. He also supports the death penalty and has taken positions liberals don't like on such other issues as the fast track for the free trade agreement with Mexico.

But in the last two months Mr. Clinton has made giant strides in JTC making liberals forget his DLC connections. He has won some valued labor endorsements. And he has enlisted influential support among black leaders, particularly but not exclusively in the South, who have focused on his record in appointing

blacks to key jobs in Arkansas and in stressing issues such as education with obvious resonance in the black community.

Here in New Hampshire Mr. Clinton also has moved far beyond

his original base of support with relatively conservative Democrats to enlist such longtime activists as Paul McEachern, a former gubernatorial candidate with impeccable liberal credentials, former state party chairman Larry Radway and Ricia McMahon, a former party executive with a long history in liberal campaigns. Democrats here have been reminded that he broke into politics as a young campaign coordinator in Texas for George McGovern in 1972.

On the face of it, all this should be enough to dilute and perhaps dissolve the doubts about Mr. Clinton on the left if he proves as strong a candidate as he appears to be right now. But Democratic professionals recognize there will always be some hard core of liberal activists who can be expected to resist the Arkansas governor. Although he denies it, Gov. Mario Cuomo has made it clear he is less than entranced by Mr. Clinton. Others will complain about specifics -- the fact, for example, that Mr. Clinton's support for abortion rights is not totally unqualified.

Just how many of these Democrats there are is an open question. Mr. Harkin believes there are enough "real Democrats," as he likes to call them, to make him a serious contender here before the Feb. 18 New Hampshire primary. So his candidacy provides something of a measuring stick. If Mr. Harkin breaks out the underbrush, it will be taken as a sign that old-style liberalism still must be accommodated.

Mr. Clinton's position as the front-runner is, of course, one that could be denied him overnight if, for instance, he committed some gaffein a debate or if questions about his personal life were substantiated with any evidence, which has not been the case yet. The campaign is still in an infant stage in which most voters, even here in New Hampshire, are not paying much attention.

But the basic questions remain. The first is whether any significant number of Democrats share Mr. Harkin's obvious view that Mr. Clinton is a closet Republican. The second is whether, even if they do, they have the weight to deny him his position as the acknowledged leader of the pack.

Those who have followed Governor Clinton's career closely always have considered him as liberal as just about any southern Democrat with the possible exception of another Arkansas leader, Sen. Dale Bumpers. And liberals in states as diverse as Florida, Texas, Mississippi and New Hampshire have been casting their lot with him in impressive numbers. That should be enough, but in the Democratic Party there is a long tradition of litmus tests.

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