Panetta: A Different Kind of Democrat Even Before Clinton Made It Fashionable

December 13, 1992|By MARTIN SMITH

In selecting California Rep. Leon Panetta as his budget director, President-elect Bill Clinton demonstrates that he really meant it when he campaigned as a different kind of Democrat, one who's skeptical of many of the usual liberal panaceas for the nation's economic ills and who's serious about cutting the budget deficit.

Mr. Panetta's appointment increases the odds that the new administration will avoid overdoing the pump-priming measures that could trigger inflation.

The 54-year-old Mr. Panetta has himself never fit the mold of a traditional liberal Democrat. He started in politics as a Republican, serving as an aide to a moderate GOP U.S. senator, Thomas Kuchel of California.

After Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, Mr. Panetta became director of the Office of Civil Rights. But he resigned during Mr. Nixon's first term after discovering that he wasn't supposed to take his job too seriously. Mr. Nixon and his White House gang didn't want a strong push for civil rights.

A year later, in 1971, Mr. Panetta switched parties, and five years after that, the Monterey native successfully ran for Congress, defeating a longtime Republican incumbent, Burt Talcott.

Mr. Panetta has easily won re-election every two years since then; this year he was returned to Congress with 72 percent of the vote.

His original election turned out to be a milestone in California politics, demonstrating that the voting habits of the state's coastal counties had drastically changed. Previously, coastal communities tended to be strongly Republican.

But Mr. Panetta won in 1976 by doing what Mr. Clinton did this year in winning the White House, running as a different kind of Democrat -- and that turned out to be almost exactly what a majority of the region's voters wanted.

FTC They favored candidates who were strong on environmental protection but also critical of the high cost of government and of bureaucratic red tape.

At a time when a majority of Democrats were embracing the Humphrey-Hawkins proposal to boost employment by creating federal jobs, Mr. Panetta opposed the measure, lauding its objectives but warning that it was inflationary.

In short, he was an early example of the kind of the middle-of-the-road Democrat that the Democratic Leadership Council, the organization that Mr. Clinton helped to establish, sought to encourage.

Mr. Talcott in 1976 didn't know how to deal with Panetta's challenge. He sought to portray the Democrat as a liberal, but that accusation was too far off the mark to stick. Mr. Panetta has always been a moderate, and he didn't try to portray himself as anything else during his campaign.

A reporter who covered the 1976 race remembers that after Mr. Panetta spoke to a Kiwanis Club, one of its members commented, approvingly, "There's still a lot of Republican left in him."

Former House Speaker Tip O'Neill may have felt the same way at times. Under Mr. O'Neill's leadership, the congressional Democratic Caucus in 1984 refused to approve a rule change that would have permitted Mr. Panetta to continue serving on the influential Budget Committee and to assume its chairmanship.

Four years later, however, circumstances had changed enough to permit Mr. Panetta to return to the committee and become its chairman. His performance in that job has gained him the respect and confidence not only of his colleagues but also that of business leaders and Wall Street economists.

Mr. Panetta has been a very able representative of his district and, as House Budget Committee chairman, probably the most powerful member of the California congressional delegation.

He's been a dedicated public servant and is an inspired choice as budget director. His appointment should make it even easier for Mr. Clinton to work with Congress on keeping the lid on any efforts by its more liberal members to loosen up spending beyond what is prudent.

Martin Smith is political editor for McClatchy News Service.

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