Clinton won't repeat Carter's early mistakes ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

December 01, 1992|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton's transition planners have been spending a lot of time quizzing those who worked for President-elect Jimmy Carter 16 years ago about how to avoid some of the problems the last Democratic president endured. That makes sense, given the rough spots Carter encountered early in his presidency.

But it would be a mistake to infer that Clinton and Carter have much in common beyond the fact both came to the presidency from serving as governors of Southern states. If Clinton stumbles early, it probably will be because he made entirely different mistakes, rather than repeating those of Jimmy Carter.

The most obvious difference between Clinton and Carter is the level of their experience in the national political arena before winning the presidency. By contrast with Clinton's 12 years as governor of Arkansas, Carter had served a single four-year term in Georgia and was out of office when he ran.

The significant point here is that Clinton, never one to hide his ambition, has been active in national party affairs and national politics in general for most of the past decade. As a result, he has a wide circle of friends and allies with experience in Washington. Carter, by contrast, was a genuine outsider with few friends or even acquaintances in the capital when he arrived here.

This means that Clinton is comfortable calling on the Warren Christophers and Vernon Jordans of the Washington establishment to help him plan his administration while Carter always seemed to appear open largely to the advice of a tight inner circle of Georgians.

But the most telling difference between Clinton and Carter lies in their attitudes toward politics. To Clinton, politics is meat and drink. He revels in the closest contact with his constituents, and has always enjoyed the schmoozing, backslapping and elbow-squeezing that is involved in dealing with other politicians. He is a master at what politicians always call "working the room."

Carter was a curious case. He showed a mastery of politics perhaps unmatched at the time when he rose from the obscurity of that single term as governor to win the Democratic presidential nomination against a field of nationally known competitors, then defeated President Gerald R. Ford to reclaim the White House after it had been eight years in Republican hands. But once elected, Carter behaved as if politics should play no part in his stewardship.

Robert Strauss, the former Democratic chairman and full-time political animal, discovered as much when he was serving as Carter's special trade representative. If he saw the administration wandering into hot water politically on some issue, Strauss would telephone the White House to pass on a warning -- only to find it might take two days for the president to return his call. But if he telephoned on a trade matter, he discovered, Carter would respond immediately.

Dealing with Congress, Carter was equally aloof from conventional politics. Indeed, puzzled congressional leaders reported to their colleagues, this new president thought that if a proposal or a policy was "right," it eventually would prevail. The result early in his term was a series of "misunderstandings" with Congress that left the president with few allies.

Nor could Carter understand that national leadership requires constant political campaigning, even from the Oval Office, to build a popular consensus behind his views that eventually would make itself felt on Capitol Hill. Almost deliberately, it seemed, he became such a bland figure on television that even (( other politicians paid little attention. Even his triumphs never earned him the credit he might have expected. When, for example, he brokered the historic peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1978, he gained only a single point in the Gallup Poll.

On the other hand, Clinton is demonstrating during the transition, as he did during the campaign, that he knows how to control both the political agenda and the news coverage.

None of this suggests that the new president-elect necessarily will continue to enjoy his political honeymoon. But if Bill Clinton wanders into trouble after he takes office next month, it won't be because the newcomer from Arkansas is repeating the mistakes of his predecessor from Georgia.

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