Clinton will not rely so much on his advisers

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

December 12, 1992|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The political calculus on President-elect Bill Clinton's choices for his new government is so simple even a child could do it -- Lloyd Bentsen to reassure the establishment, Leon Panetta to placate the deficit hawks, several women to show Clinton remembers who put him where he is today and so forth.

But what may be lacking in the current orgy of analysis is a realistic view of how policy decisions will be made in the new administration. Judging by Clinton's history as governor and as a candidate this year, he is not likely to take a vote among his advisers to settle on a policy direction.

And to the extent that is true, all the emphasis on the particular views of the Bentsens and Panettas, Rubins and Shalalas may be missing the point entirely.

This is probably a result of 12 years of conditioning that has led Washington insiders to view the White House in terms of competing factions of advisers rather than a center dominated by the president.

Although he had strongly held views on central issues -- his hostility to taxes, for example -- Ronald Reagan never was accused of being consumed by the details to the point that his advisers weren't even needed.

On the contrary, during his first term many of the twists and turns of Reagan policy were determined by an unspoken but very real cabal that included White House Chief of Staff James Baker; Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee, then the Senate majority leader; Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, then the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee; and then-Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada, Reagan's closest political ally and friend.

In the second term, Reagan never had an agenda, and many of the initiatives taken by his administration were a reflection of the priorities and energies of different groups of advisers. That system didn't always work well, as witness the Iran-contra affair that put an ineradicable stain on the Reagan record.

President Bush also has been a chief executive with so little demonstrated interest in domestic policy that it became natural to see his policies as products of advisers rather than his own thinking. In the aftermath of his defeat, the people being blamed in the Republican post-mortems are former Chief of Staff John Sununu, everyone's favorite whipping boy, and -- because of Bush's failure to produce a coherent election-year economic program -- Secretary of the Treasury Nicholas Brady and Budget Director RichardDarman.

But the White House doesn't always operate that way. When John F. Kennedy served there, briefly though it may have been, he was the one who received both the credit and the blame. No one said the Bay of Pigs was the product of bad advice from his staff. The same was true of Lyndon B. Johnson. He was credited, properly, as the man who put through the landmark civil rights bills of 1964 and 1965 and blamed, again properly, for the fateful decision to plunge further into the war in Vietnam.

The same could be said of their successors, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter. Whatever you thought of their performance in office, it was always clear that they were responsible for both the good and the bad. No one claimed they were victims of their advisers.

Clinton has more in common with these presidents from the 1960s and 1970s than with either Reagan or Bush. Like most of them -- the Democrats in particular -- the president-elect is a believer in an activist government being used to confront national problems. And he has a whole list of policy approaches that he outlined during the election campaign that he clearly intends to follow.

So although it is quite possible that some of his advisers may believe that quick spending on the infrastructure may not be as necessary as it appeared a few weeks ago, Clinton is aware that he has made commitments to some of his supporters -- big city mayors, in particular -- that will weigh heavily in his decision. Similarly, although Clinton may get what some consider extremist advice on the environment, he is the president, not Al Gore, and not one likely to accept that advice.

Dissecting the views of the new Cabinet members is a fine political sport during a period when there is little real news in Washington. But it would be a mistake to take any of it very seriously. Bill Clinton is the one the voters elected Nov. 3.

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