Conciliation, consensus favored


October 28, 1992|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Staff Writer

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- If Bill Clinton were a boxer, he'd wear velvet gloves and try to win on points -- talking points, that is.

He's not a milquetoast. But politicians and others who have watched the Arkansas governor agree he has a leadership style that values conciliation and consensus building over confrontation.

His major successes have sprung from an ability to galvanize public support and win over reluctant legislators with friendly persuasion. It is these qualities that supporters say he would bring to the White House if elected.

Shunning arm-twisting, he brings adversarial parties together, smothering conflicts and doubts with facts, figures, force of personality and an abundance of empathy. As good a listener as he is a talker, Mr. Clinton assures one and all that he understands their position and respects it.

But while this approach has served Mr. Clinton well, it also leads some to question his governing character.

His zealous willingness to see both sides of an issue, and at times express both, fuels his critics' image of him as wishy-washy.

And even friends take Mr. Clinton to task for his reliance on what one calls "honey and sugar" in getting legislative agreements. They wish sometimes he'd lose his patience and get tough with opponents.

If he is not always a bold leader, as his detractors argue, Mr. Clinton's devotion to consensus nonetheless has paid off in what most agree is his greatest achievement in Arkansas: education.

Mr. Clinton's career-long push for education reform has resulted in stronger school standards, more diversity in courses, smaller class sizes, higher teacher pay and a sharp increase in Arkansas college enrollment.

But he never would have accomplished any of this without changing the leadership style he brought into his first term as governor.

Just 32 years old when elected in 1978, Mr. Clinton had a lot to learn about governing before he could help Arkansans learn more in school. A generation younger than most members of the General Assembly, Mr. Clinton rubbed many the wrong way with an ambitious agenda and an inner-circle of idealistic but impolitic aides.

But he might have survived if he hadn't gotten so far ahead of public opinion, particularly on the issue of taxes. Sharp increases in automobile license and registration fees generated as much ill will as new revenue, contributing to Mr. Clinton's stunning defeat by a Republican in 1980.

"He was highly criticized during his first term for only relying on the advice of two or three people very close to him, almost operating in a vacuum, without seeking public input and without seeking broad support or advice," says Mahlon A. Martin, who was his director of finance and administration in later years.

Depressed, Mr. Clinton analyzed his mistakes and went back to voters to tell them he had made a mistake and ask forgiveness. He supplemented his personal contacts with an extraordinary televised apology: ". . . You feel I was often out of touch, that I worked hard on what I wanted to do but didn't always seem to care about what you wanted me to do."

His friend David R. Matthews, a former legislator, says, "One of the things Bill learned from his defeat in 1980 is you can lead people anywhere, but you can't drive them across the street."

He returned to power in 1982 a changed leader. More sensitive to public opinion and determined to have less abrasive relations with legislators and power brokers, he acknowledged in his victory speech he was being given a "second chance."

He didn't waste it. When the courts ruled that the state's school-aid distribution formula was inequitable, Mr. Clinton decided to seek more revenues through a tax increase and to strengthen educational standards.

"He initially kicked it off with the people," recalls Betsey Wright, // his chief of staff for several years and now a campaign aide. "I remember we had a 30-minute TV . . . in which he discussed key highlights and elements of the program." . At the same time, Mr. Clinton appointed his wife, Hillary, to head a committee to develop stronger school standards. It went to every county, soliciting views.

By the time the legislators met in special session, "people in their districts were literally begging for them to vote for" higher taxes for school reform, Ms. Wright says. The Legislature approved a sales tax increase, but in the face of business lobbying balked at increases in the corporate income tax and severance tax on natural gas.

Mr. Clinton has had a relationship with the Legislature that may be unique in Arkansas history. He is his own best lobbyist, and doesn't stop at phone calls and summoning legislators to his office in the Capitol.

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