Diplomatic Clinton visits the wise men and women ON POLITICS

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

May 01, 1992|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- That was not exactly an avalanche of endorsements that came down on Gov. Bill Clinton when he visited Capitol Hill the day after his clear-cut victory in the Pennsylvania presidential primary. By one count, 31 House and Senate members climbed aboard the Clinton bandwagon. That brings the total of previously unpledged congressional "superdelegates" who had committed to him to 123, out of 275 getting a free ride to the Democratic National Convention.

The whole idea of the superdelegates is that as ranking party officials and elected officeholders, they are supposed to function as party wise men and women poised to bring political pragmatism to the choice of a nominee, especially if the voters in primaries are deemed to have lacked it.

The designation was inspired by the 1976 nomination of Jimmy Carter through the primary election process, which at the time and in retrospect many Democratic regulars considered disastrous, because Carter was such an unknown quantity, especially to the party wise men and women.

And with the continuing reservations about Clinton's electability this year, a fair number of superdelegates are holding back on endorsing him now, in the spirit of that designated role.

Some of Clinton's strongest advocates, such as Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, are predicting that the endorsements from Democrats in Congress are likely to start flowing shortly.

From all accounts of those who attended the private meetings Clinton held with the House and Senate members, he made a very favorable impression while not doing an about-face on the considerable criticisms he has made of Congress as a whole in his campaign.

As a matter of fact, as a measure of his talent for diplomacy, Clinton rated an "A" in his performance. Asked about his role in the leadership of the party, he deferred to Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and House Speaker Tom Foley, as well as to Democratic National Chairman Ron Brown.

When reminded of the troubles members of Congress have gotten themselves into in the House bank episode and in voting themselves a pay raise, which he has criticized on the stump, Clinton said he would be pleased to campaign with them as long as they, like himself, ran as "agents of change."

He took note of differences between himself and Democrats in Congress, particularly on enactment of a line-item veto that he supports as a governor and House members deplore. And he did not hesitate to say he thought Congress should comply with the request that all House records be made available in the bank investigation, although Foley had been balking at doing so.

But the main tenor of Clinton's remarks was conciliatory and unifying. He observed diplomatically that he knows the Democrats in Congress share the frustration of voters over the "gridlock" in Washington. And he offered as the solution his own election in November, which would produce a working Democratic partnership between the executive and the legislative branches for the first time in 12 years.

President Bush has used the same basic explanation for the gridlock in urging that voters give him a congressional majority -- for his second term. But barring a cataclysmic result at the congressional level in November, a re-elected George Bush would face another four years of a Democratic Congress, considering the comfortable majorities the Democrats now enjoy: Democrats to 43 Republicans in the Senate, 268 Democrats to 166 Republicans and one independent in the House.

Regardless of the doubts that Democrats in Congress may harbor about Clinton, the prospect of having a Democrat in the White House who campaigned on bringing change to Washington through an active partnership with Capitol Hill seems certain to enhance his congressional support in the days and weeks ahead. Besides, the sense that the Clinton train is leaving the station behooves the doubters, being politicians, to hop aboard soon.

Meanwhile, the finding of exit pollsters in Pennsylvania that about two-thirds of Democratic voters there rated Clinton as having the honesty and integrity to serve as president should temper the "character" issue somewhat for him.

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