Clinton's burden eases despite the baggage ON POLITICS

JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

April 16, 1992|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- No one would argue that Bill Clinton is not carrying heavy political baggage as he marches inexorably toward the Democratic presidential nomination. His single biggest problem is the doubt abroad in the electorate about his personal intergrity.

But, in quite a different sense, it is rqually true that the Arkansas Democrat is preparing to face President Bush carrying far less weight than many of his recent predecessors. Clinton has positioned himself to win the nomination without caving in to -- or, more to the point, appearing to cave in to -- any of the constituency groups of the Democratic Party and without passing the usual self-defeating series of litmus tests imposed by the party's liberals.

In this respect, the campaign has been much more enlightened and adult than most contests for the Democratic nomination in recent elections. It has been refreshing, for example, not to have to listen to liberals complaining that some candidate is unacceptable because he voted for the MX missile or aid to the contras. There has been no argument over gun control. And Clinton's support for the death penalty has not been crippling as it might have been even four years ago. He has the backing of the AFL-CIO although he governs a right-to-work state and supports the free trade agreement with Mexico.

There appear to be only two litmus tests remaining for a Democratic nominee. He must be strong in his support for civil rights and for abortion rights. And even here, Clinton has gotten away with some fudging. He made what he called the "foolish mistake" of playing golf at an all-white club in Little Rock. He has favored parental consent and opposed some public funding in abortions. But, nobody seems inclined to pick any fights about these small warts.

On some issues, he has had it both ways. He described himself as sort of generally opposed to the Persian Gulf War but added that if his vote had been the decisive one to authorize military action, he would have cast it that way.

Clinton's escape from the usual strictures on Democratic candidates has been a product of the context of the campaign. When voters are most concerned about the condition of the economy and their own jobs, they are not likely to be as preoccupied with capital punishment or other social issues. Beyond that, the Clinton campaign has been so engrossed in dealing with controversies about his past that no one has gotten around to making much of whether he is vulnerable on the abortion issue.

Clinton still may have to deal with demands from one key constituency group, black voters, probably as the price of Jesse Jackson's support. But Jackson's flirtation with Jerry Brown has put Clinton in a position to treat Jackson as another prominent party leader but not as someone whose permission he needs to run. Jackson clearly has lost some standing from his own failure to run and from Brown's inability to attract a large black vote by naming Jackson as his choice for vice president.

Handling Jackson remains, however, a special test of political skill for Clinton. In the last two campaigns, neither Walter Mondale nor Michael Dukakis made any genuine concessions to Jackson, but both appeared to have allowed him to jerk them around at the party convention -- a perception that was poison with many white voters.

None of this freedom that Clinton enjoys will necessarily protect him against the usual Republican complaint that any Democratic nominee is a tax-and-spend liberal. The Arkansas governor left an opening in New York when he made some incautious if amorphous commitments to press for new programs for urban America, which translates to the largely black inner cities. It would be a surprise if the Republicans don't produce some cost estimate for the programs Clinton has endorsed.

Because of the controversies about Gennifer Flowers and his draft history, Clinton also will be an easy target for President Bush's campaign on the "family values" issue and on the contrast in the two candidates' military records. But because he supports the death penalty, Clinton will not be easy to depict as soft on crime.

Clinton's political baggage is heavy but it could be heavier.

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