How's he doing?

William Safire

December 22, 1992|By William Safire

WHEN Ed Koch was mayor of New York, he would plunge into the subways to ask riders, "How'm I doin'?" (His Beijing look-alike, Zhu Rongji, is doin' fine.)

How does Bill Clinton after two-thirds of the interregnum? My criteria are his Cabinet choices, his economic outreach and last week's news conference.

1. Thirteen Yes-Persons and a Multiculturalist. Eisenhower's Cabinet was called "Eight Millionaires and a Plumber"; Lord Grenville's star-studded government, after the death in 1806 of William Pitt, was dubbed "the Ministry of All the Talents" (changed within a year to "all the hacks"). What conclusions can we draw about the coming Clinton administration from the Cabinet choices so far?

"I didn't want a Cabinet of strangers," he says. In a sense, that's a pity; the stranger in the Nixon Cabinet was George Shultz at Labor, who turned out to be the best of the bunch. Mr. Clinton's Labor choice, Robert Reich, abandoned his intrusive idea of mandatory job-training spending by business within a week of his nomination, a sensible if gutless retreat; we can hope he is more stalwart about espousing free trade. (Organized labor got its feeble payoff with a protectionist Council of Economic Advisers.)

The Bentsen-Altman team at Treasury along with the Panetta-Rivlin duo at Budget and Ron Brown at Commerce offer a clear indication that Ross Perot's message got through: Working with Congress to reduce the deficit is the top priority, which is a good thing. To appear to offer economic stimulus, Mr. Clinton will spread about some roads-and-bridges pork under the name of "infrastructure investment," but that is only to get credit for the recovery that is taking place on its own; it will hardly offset the $15 billion in tax refunds that George Bush handed out a year early.

Democratic lefties will get their share of rhetoric and symbolism, more important to them than real money. The sop to the liberal Cerberus is Donna Shalala, reputed high priestess of political correctness, whose multicultural passion will be harmless enough if accompanied by the promised health and welfare reforms.

The leaked intention of nominating a woman (preferably with a law degree) to be attorney general is blatantly sexist; I hope it is offset by nominating a man to be treasurer of the U.S., which would be a modern first. (Hang the cost of putting in a men's room at the Mint.) The only group not given its quota so far is Republicans; I'd like to see Carla Hills at the State Department, but that, along with the NSC, is supposedly set for Carter II.

Will the Senate's prim Tower Rule be applied to the Clinton choices? The first Republican to drag sex practice or preference into the confirmation hearings will get a zap from us partisans of privacy, but at least a couple of the newcomers can expect to be roughed up; Mr. Clinton properly warned of going "beyond the Pale."

2. The Little Rock Economic Seminar. The object was to show "the presidency is in the details," like God and the Devil; the televised wonkmanship was an exercise in public involvement, and the president-elect succeeded in showing the world he can stay awake through a morning meeting.

3. News Conference Preparation. In last week's introduction of Henry Cisneros, Mr. Clinton quietly launched his '96 campaign against Jack Kemp, describing HUD as "an agency that badly needs reform and revitalization."

Asked about the murder of Israeli soldiers followed by the two-year expulsion of members of the Hamas terrorist group, Mr. Clinton avoided the standard State Department Arabism. He said: "I share the anger and the frustration and the outrage of the Israeli people . . . on the other hand, I am concerned that this deportation may go too far . . . " We'll see if his choice for secretary of state veers back to knee-jerk condemnation of Israel.

To an astute question about the wisdom of appointing a veterans' advocate to head Veterans Affairs, Mr. Clinton argued that with a couple of veterans lobbyists in charge, he will be better able to get "a serious attempt at eligibility reform." That means he expects the former lobbyists to sell out their constituency by denying expected health benefits. Either Mr. Clinton is kidding himself or us.

How's he doing? Our next president is practicing safe politics. He runs the risk of running no risk.

William Safire is a New York Times columnist.

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