What Clinton Needs Is an Early (and Winnable) Fight

BRUCE F. FREED

November 22, 1992|By BRUCE F. FREED

Shortly after he moves into the White House, Bill Clinton will need to pick a fight -- one he is confident he can win.

Like a champion boxer, the new president will find that winning the title is only the first step. As important will be his next bout. He has to choose that fight very carefully.

For President-elect Clinton, the stakes are high. It will be his chance to demonstrate his leadership qualities and put his policy and political imprint on the Democratic Party. It will give Washington's power centers -- Congress, the political community, and the media -- the opportunity to judge his performance and decide whether he should retain the title of undisputed champion.

A test is inevitable. It could come from a Democratic congressional leader or a powerful committee chairman used to 12 years of independence. It could come from long-starved Democratic constituency groups such as organized labor, minorities and the education establishment, pushing their own traditional agendas. It could also be sparked by a serious policy disagreement. Taxes and spending are possible flash points.

Two factors are critical to the outcome. The president must feel sure that he will win the fight, since a loss so early in the term would irreparably hurt him. In addition, the media and the political community must see his foe as formidable and the outcome in doubt.

The appearance of the calculated gamble is important. The fact that he took a gamble and won will give that victory the symbolic quality that will cement his reputation. It will send the message that he's in charge and he knows how to get his way.

As the governor prepares for his inauguration, he should look at how three of his recent predecessors -- Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and Jimmy Carter -- handled challenges early in their administrations. It may very well save him from missteps that could damage his presidency.

When Lyndon Johnson became president in November 1963, he inherited a Democratic Congress that had thwarted President Kennedy's legislative program. The problem lay with Southern conservatives, such as Rep. Otto Passman of Louisiana, who held key committee and subcommittee chairmanships.

As chairman of the House Appropriations Foreign Operations Subcommittee, Mr. Passman regularly gutted presidential foreign aid requests. Mr. Johnson tried to get a trimmed-down bill through Congress in December 1963 but saw it cut $100 million below the figure he set as the absolute minimum. The president couldn't allow a repeat.

Mr. Johnson used the "bare bones" foreign aid request he sent to Congress in the spring of 1964 to get his revenge. Knowing that Mr. Passman would oppose it, the president went to work and beat him in his subcommittee, the House Appropriations Committee and on the House floor.

As Congressional Quarterly noted, "There was little doubt in Washington in 1964 that Mr. Johnson had become the first President to tangle with Otto Passman successfully." Congress got the message. The president racked up impressive legislative wins that year end in the 89th Congress.

President Reagan had a pliant Congress that eagerly passed his tax cut and spending program in early 1981. Even after his triumphs, however, doubts remained about his leadership.

For Mr. Reagan, the fight with the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization gave him an opportunity to prove himself. PATCO was one of the few unions to support Mr. Reagan in 1980, and thought that would help when it decided to strike in August 1981.

The president responded swiftly. He ordered the strikers to return to work within 48 hours. Those who didn't, he warned, would be dismissed. Mr. Reagan kept his word and fired the strikers. The decisiveness with which he acted showed Congress, the political community and the public his toughness.

The president later called his action "an important juncture for our new administration. I think it convinced people, who might have thought otherwise, that I meant what I said." He was right. Congress treated him warily until the Iran-contra scandal.

Jimmy Carter came to Washington in January 1977, as the virtuous outsider. He would be a manager president, not a

political president, and would concentrate on solving the nation's problems.

In that vein, Mr. Carter made little effort to develop a feel for Congress and how to deal with its members. Instead, he moved quickly to send Congress an ambitious legislative program that included a request for a $50-per-person tax rebate.

The rebate was intended to give a quick kick to a slack economy. It also turned out to be President Carter's first major fight with Congress.

Although many economists questioned the value of the rebate, the president pressed it in the House and eventually got the support of a reluctant Speaker Tip O'Neill. However,Mr. Carter embarrassed the speaker by quickly repudiating the proposal after it was opposed by powerful Senate Democrats.

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