President-elect knows how to play politics ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- It is far too soon to tell what kind of a president Bill Clinton is going to be. But it is not too early to recognize his consummate skill at one of the most important facets of the presidency: playing politics.

In the three weeks-plus since his election, the president-elect has demonstrated repeatedly that he recognizes "playing politics" is essentially the same thing as exercising national leadership. It is a lesson the last Democrat in the White House, Jimmy Carter, never learned; he ran a masterful campaign, then abandoned politics entirely. By contrast, Clinton rarely lets a day go by without sending some political signal.

This is true even when things don't turn out swimmingly, as in the case of Sen. Wyche Fowler's loss in the Georgia runoff election the other day. Republicans quickly declared that Fowler's defeat a day after Clinton had campaigned for him sent the message that the new president lacks political coattails.

But the significant message the president-elect sent was that he was willing to put himself on the line in the interest of party loyalty, a point that will be appreciated by the Democrats in Congress whose support he will need in passing his programs next year. Most politicians already know that coattails don't work but they appreciate the gesture nonetheless.

The conventional wisdom ever since Fowler failed to achieve 50 percent of the vote Nov. 3 and was forced into the runoff had been that he probably would lose, as he did, to Republican Paul Coverdell because Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to vote in special elections. And Fowler was roundly criticized by Democratic professionals for running such a lackluster campaign that Coverdell, a former director of the Peace Corps not overburdened with political charisma, could run only a point behind him even while Clinton was carrying Georgia Nov. 3.

So Clinton might have distanced himself from the likely defeat by dispatching only Vice President-elect Al Gore and remaining in Little Rock, a cautious option he chose not to exercise. And what Americans are most likely to recall from the episode is that television coverage of the president-elect, massively self-assured, playing the saxophone and laughing uproariously with a high school band in Macon, Ga. This is the kind of photo op (his visit to a McDonald's in Washington was another) that tells Americans they now have a president who is comfortable with them because he understands their lives, a message President Bush never could convey.

Clinton also seems to be taking pains to reach out to the supporters of Ross Perot and other Americans who displayed their suspicion of the political and governmental establishment and politics as usual with their votes earlier this month.

Thus, for example, he decided the other day that the big economic conference at Little Rock Dec. 14-15 would be open to live television coverage -- but not to elected officials. The goal clearly is to depict Clinton consulting a wide range of Americans on their views on the economy without subjecting viewers to the rhetoric of all the usual suspects, meaning all the politicians and special pleaders with axes to grind.

In the first instance, the conference is clearly intended to send some reassurance to the financial analysts and business leaders uneasy about a relatively little-known governor from a small Southern state moving into the White House and control of the levers of economic power. But the design of the meeting, now being described as more a "retreat" than a "summit," also is one that says this is a president willing to listen to someone other than Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Rostenkowski and Jesse Jackson.

None of this necessarily has much to do with how the Clinton presidency finally plays out. The president-elect will be confronted by challenges that cannot be met solely by skillful political positioning.

But one key to any successful presidency is the ability to lead the country into believing that the president recognizes and understands his constituents' concerns and has sound ideas for dealing with them. That is what "playing politics" is all about, and it is a game Bill Clinton has been playing masterfully in his first three weeks at center stage.

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