To appear new, Clinton may use the old politics ON POLITICS



WAHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- President-elect Bill Clinton seems to be getting squeezed into contradictory positions by the pressures of staffing his new administration. In his attempt to represent himself as the candidate of change, he may end up playing the conventional politics of constituency groups.

On the one hand, Clinton has promised an administration that "looks more like America" -- meaning one with someone other than the usual middle-aged white males who hold most of the influential jobs in any government formed by either party. But in trying to achieve that end, he apparently intends to perform the classic kind of political balancing act.

It has become obvious, for example, that the president-elect doesn't want to announce the choice of Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and the quintessential establishment insider, without the leavening of some other appointments given to women or minority groups. Similarly, whatever plans Clinton has for naming blacks to key jobs have to be balanced to some degree by what he does for the Hispanic-American constituency. And too many men without women getting similar recognition clearly is out of bounds.

Thus, the prospect is that the top choices to staff the government will be announced in clusters so that their marvelous variety will be obvious to all viewers.

All of this recalls the way New York Democrats used to make up their state tickets. The basic rule was that "the three-I league" had to be protected -- that is, that Ireland, Italy and Israel had to be represented to appeal to the Irish Catholics, Italian-Americans and Jews who made up the party's most important constituencies. WASPs rarely found a place on a Democratic ticket in those days.

That kind of balancing sounds quaintly old-fashioned today. But when you get down to basics, it is no different from the approach Clinton is taking right now. It is what politicians always do -- an attempt to give the largest numbers of different kinds of voters the feeling they have a stake in their administration.

The rules also seem to require that no one can be totally candid about this balancing business. The appointees are always the "best person" available, not just the Mexican-American with the best resume at a time when a Hispanic surname is important to the Cabinet. President Bush even insisted with a straight face that he chose Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court because of his legal credentials and without regard to his race. It is unlikely anyone above the age of 12 believed him, but this is the kind of political lie no one bothers to challenge because everyone does it.

This is probably another case of the political operatives underestimating the electorate. Although the vast majority of Americans want to see, for example, women treated with equity in the federal government as well as the private marketplace, it is unlikely that the voters will keep a running count of how various constituencies fare and use that count to judge whether Clinton has treated women or blacks or any other group fairly. It may be a factor but it is only one of many that need to be considered in assessing whether an administration is representative of the nation.

But, although he represents "change," Clinton is a pretty conventional politician in most respects. He didn't make it through all those primaries and defeat an incumbent president without paying close attention to which groups needed to be stroked, or which could be safely ignored for a time. Although he was willing to defy the usual practice and keep Jesse Jackson at arm's length, he did so in the comfortable knowledge that he had the support of enough other black political leaders to see him through.

Now it is time to pay off those conventional obligations. For example, those black leaders who helped when Clinton needed it most -- the Maynard Jacksons and Kurt Schmokes of the Democratic Party -- are entitled to corresponding recognition and influence. That's what politics is all about.

But Clinton, the candidate of a different generation, would be making a serious mistake if he lets himself get all bent out of shape by the old politics. If Americans wanted business as usual, they would have re-elected George Bush.

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