Clinton is leaving the baggage behind ON POLITICS


March 19, 1992|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

DETROIT -- The significance of Gov. Bill Clinton's clear victories in the Michigan and Illinois primaries is not simply that he finally won somewhere outside his native South. The way he won -- with an impressive coalition of black, blue-collar and white suburban voters, more women than men, and military veterans supporting him -- makes a strong argument against criticism that he is unelectable because of the personal baggage he carries.

It is true that turnout was relatively low, and that a much larger turnout in November, after a predictable onslaught against Clinton from the Republicans, could tell a different story. But those voters who did cast ballots demonstrated that the allegations of Clinton's womanizing, draft-dodging and conflicts of interest in the past, or the fear of more charges of misconduct in the future, were not a bar to their support. Indeed, exit polls jointly financed by the television networks found that 83 percent of those citing reasons they voted for Clinton said they believed he can win in November.

Fears of unelectability were raised very vocally in Michigan by labor leaders, some of them urging union members to vote for former Gov. Jerry Brown or send delegates uncommitted to the Democratic convention. With their own favorite, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, out of the race, they hoped for a deadlocked convention where their influence then would be felt on choosing an alternative to Clinton.

The labor leaders thought they had persuasive arguments beyond electability with which to convince their members not to vote for Clinton. The most serious of these was his support of presidential authorization for fast-track trade negotiations with Mexico. The issue has been made a litmus test by organized labor, with the easily understood contention that such negotiations will encourage the shift of American jobs to low-wage Mexico.

On this issue, former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts was no satisfactory alternative, because he also supports fast-track negotiations. Furthermore, Tsongas failed the other key litmus test of organized labor -- support for strikers' replacement legislation, which would require employers after a strike to rehire striking employees rather than keep on the "scabs" who helped them through the strike. Clinton was with organized labor on this one.

But the unions had a candidate in Brown who was on their side on both of these litmus-test issues and most others.

The exit polls indicated Clinton won more votes from Michigan labor households than did Brown, and only 5 percent cited electability as a reason for voting for Brown. Carl Kraske, a United Auto Workers member at the Hermes Automotive Manufacturing Co. plant here, may have summed up the attitude of the average Michigan union member concerning political urgings from his labor leaders: "It goes in one ear and out the other."

Clinton's ability to overcome much of the labor leadership's opposition in Michigan -- it was not nearly as strong against him in Illinois -- was a measure of his success in conveying himself as a fighter for the middle class that has felt increasingly shortchanged in the Bush years. Tsongas fell flat in part because he ridiculed the middle-class tax cut proposed by Clinton, arguing instead that taxpayers' money be used to pump-prime the nation's manufacturing base -- whose managers are held in contempt by many laid-off or disgruntled auto workers in Michigan and Illinois.

Combined with Clinton's appeal to blacks as an enlightened Southern politician determined to achieve racial harmony in two zTC states with significant black populations, his blue-collar support restored large elements of the traditional Democratic coalition. Exit polls also indicated that about one-fifth of Democrats who had voted for George Bush in 1988 were returning to the party, nearly two out of five under Clinton's banner. Whether they were moved by his appeal or by disenchantment with Bush, they did vote for him.

This positive outlook for Clinton could be shaken by some further, serious revelation about his past or present. But for now, it indicates that no matter what some politicians and labor leaders say about his baggage, Bill Clinton is an impressive vote-getter.

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