Clinton's Team: How Will They Mesh?

December 20, 1992|By JOSEPH R.L. STERNE

One month from today, William Jefferson Clinton will be sworn in as president of the United States.

One month and one day from today, he is supposed to offer his prescription for the rescue of the economy from the morass of Reagan-Bush budget deficits, trade imbalances, wealth maldistribution, recession, slow growth, credit crunch, education neglect, untrained workforce, uncompetitiveness and just about every other ill in the liberal lexicon.

Rarely has there been such a buildup for a policy decision whose outlines have been so thoroughly signaled in advance.

Mr. Clinton may not produce much of a surprise, and he may not want to produce much of a surprise. But he wants impact. He wants psychological boost. He wants to fulfill campaign promises. He wants his supporters satisfied and his critics mollified. He wants, above all, to achieve something of real and lasting substance through a much advertised formula: short-term stimulus in the economy locked into long-term deficit reduction.

If he is to get his presidency off to a good start, he will have to determine just how much stimulus and just how much deficit reduction will get through Congress and meet with general approval. This formula is easy to put in writing -- in fact, it has become something of a cliche -- but devilishly difficult to define.

Anyone who tuned into the 19-hour teach-in offered by Professor Clinton last week must know he can worry about his enemies later. For now, his friends are trouble enough.

There was James Tobin of Yale demanding a $60 billion rocket-boost in federal spending, Allen Sinai of the Boston Company urging half that amount and Henry Aaron of Brookings advocating zero stimulus and total emphasis on deficit reduction.

In the end, Governor Clinton kept his own counsel. He had achieved his aim, which was to demonstrate he really is interested in the economy, as George Bush never was, and knows the subject matter well enough to make decisions as solidly based as any offered by the experts.

The question is whether he will actually make the tough decisions and carry them through to implementation. In winning the ultimate political prize, he was a master of the waffle. If he is to achieve presidential success, he will have to deal with a thousand contending forces (many on view in Little Rock, many caterwauling from afar) to establish himself as a master of policy -- and perhaps of philosophy.

Not by coincidence, there is a disconnect between the liberal ''consensus'' amply aired in Little Rock by Democrats long denied their turn at the federal trough and the conservative economic team Mr. Clinton has placed at the heart of his administration.

Maybe this is one case where you shouldn't listen to the music but rather watch the fingers and technique of the piano player. Mr. Clinton comes out of the centrist faction in the Democratic Party and nothing he has done so far indicates he is succumbing to a leftist embrace. He has merely allowed the liberals ventilation (in Little Rock) and tokenism (through second-tier appointments).

Sen. Lloyd Bentsen as secretary of Treasury, Rep. Leon Panetta as budget director and Robert Rubin as head of a new National Economic Council compose a trio that has been welcomed in business and even Republican ranks. They will be a force for austerity, for moderation, for the centrism that supposedly makes Bill Clinton ''a new kind of Democrat.''

Instead of catering to the constituency groups that dragged the party leftward and to defeat in the 1980s, their job is to get a Clinton program through Congress that will appeal to the suburban voters he wooed during the campaign. The constituency groups heard in Little Rock will have to be brought into camp and, in the end, the Clinton White House may need help from GOP lawmakers.

Mr. Panetta, chairman of the House Budget Committee, is a deficit hawk who can be counted on to fight excess spending. Mr. Bentsen, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, knows his way around taxes, health care, foreign trade, deficits -- all the key issues in the Clinton agenda. Both issued cautionary warning signals in Little Rock.

Mr. Rubin, the co-chairman of Goldman Sachs, is to reconcile their views (and his own views) with the more liberal ideas of people Mr. Clinton has put in charge of line agencies -- Robert Reich at Labor, Ron Brown at Commerce, Donna Shalala at Health and Human Services, Carol Browner at Environmental Protection and Henry Cisneros at Housing and Urban Development. All will have major input on overall economic policy.

At the Little Rock teach-in, there was little talk about the much-ballyhooed middle-class tax cut Mr. Clinton dangled on the campaign trail. The manager of the exercise, Mickey Kantor, insisted it was still on the agenda as the meeting opened, and maybe it still is. But the more pertinent question is how to keep the middle-class tax cut small so it does not become a budget-buster ballooning the deficit.

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