The Transition of Bill Clinton


November 21, 1992|By DANIEL BERGER

Candidate Bill Clinton consulted gays, not generals, on his pledge to admit homosexuals to the armed forces.

President-elect Clinton is more interested in consulting generals he is to make the thing work.

Mr. Clinton carries three pieces of heavy baggage to his assignment as commander-in-chief.

One is his record of draft avoidance. It is no greater than Dick Cheney's, which did not deter Mr. Cheney from becoming President Bush's secretary of defense.

The second is Mr. Clinton's policy on homosexuals in the service, which goes against decades of received wisdom in the Pentagon. The third is Mr. Clinton's military spending goals, which are below the Bush administration's.

On top of that, Mr. Clinton has talked glibly about using power in Bosnia. Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, leads the parade against action unless the goal is clear and sufficient force is put in place.

So Mr. Clinton is in the tradition not of peaceniks but of civilian cowboys casual about military adventure. (Mr. Cheney is reported to have offered his own battle plans for the gulf war.) My guess is that Mr. Clinton, desperate for military respect, will propitiate the brass in every way possible.

Candidate Clinton promised a tax break for the middle classes. President-elect Clinton needs revenue to reduce the deficit. President Clinton will rue Candidate Clinton's glibness. He is likely to quote Ross Perot's campaign orations more than his own on this matter.

Candidate Clinton talked about getting tough with China on human rights, presumably withholding most-favored-nation tariff status until the heroes of Tiananmen Square are freed. President Clinton is going to want to influence China's international conduct more than its domestic behavior. He is particularly going to want China's cooperation in bringing peace to Cambodia, which requires selling out the Khmer Rouge, a Beijing client.

President Clinton will also be desperate to restrain China from selling nuclear capability and missiles to nations which he believes should not have them. In short, he will choose between trying to influence China's domestic policy, or its foreign policy. There is no way not to choose.

President-elect Clinton wants to restart the economy the quickest way. That would be to hard-sell American weaponry abroad, putting American workers back to work. That would be one example of an industrial policy.

But the same is true for other arms-exporting countries, several of which are in greater economic distress than the U.S.: Russia, China, the Ukraine and embryonic Slovakia. President Clinton cannot expect to restrain other arms exporters if he does not restrain himself.

Candidate Clinton positioned himself as a greater friend of Israel than the Bush administration has been. In fairness, the Labor-led government of Yitzhak Rabin is easier to be friends with than was the former Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir, whether you are Mr. Bush or Mr. Clinton.

President Clinton, as inheritor of the peace process, will want to keep it going. He will want to nudge and shove as circumstances require, which may at times put his pro- Israeli reputation at risk.

Candidate Clinton crusaded for centrism in the Democratic Party and an end to seeing government as the answer to all social ills. His proposals on health care are conspicuously limited. President Clinton will find that dissatisfaction on health-care coverage -- its cost to those who have it, access for those who don't and burden on employers -- helped to do in one president and could do the same to his successor.

Candidate Clinton put idealism into his foreign-policy pronouncements in contrast to the Realpolitik of the Bush administration. Governor Clinton practiced Realpolitik in Arkansas. Now the world has become his Arkansas.

Like any winner, Candidate Clinton put together a coalition of disparate elements: the South, the North, Reagan Democrats, blacks, women, traditional liberals and new conservatives.

None want him to keep all his promises. They disagree on which were ill-advised. Each will be quick to spot when he has sold out to the other. Candidate Clinton was cagey about making as few overt promises as manageable. President Clinton must keep or renege on those.

As President Bush might have said: The waffle stops here.

F: Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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