Clinton's defense of gays may hurt economic plan

January 28, 1993|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- If all had gone to plan, President Clinton and Congress would now be working to put the economy back on track, fulfilling their joint commitment to end gridlock in government.

Instead, Mr. Clinton is trying to head off his first real policy confrontation with Capitol Hill and escape the charge that, for the second time, he has badly misjudged opposition to one of his decisions.

His handling of the gays-in-the-military issue has provoked another high-profile battle that comes on the heels of Zoe Baird's withdrawal of her nomination as attorney general.

Mr. Clinton yesterday denied he was being distracted from the economy, but by any standard, with the Congress in turmoil and the Pentagon up in arms over the gay discrimination issue, it has been a troubling start in the White House for the new president.

His difficulties have been magnified by the delay in presenting what should have dominated his early tenure -- an economic plan to create jobs immediately and reduce the deficit over the longer term, feeding the consumer confidence his election generated.

Mr. Clinton initially promised to focus "like a laser beam" on the economy and have the plan ready on the day after he moved into the Oval Office. A week later, the word is that he will outline it in his Feb. 17 State of the Union message to Congress.

In the meantime, attention focuses on the resistance to his plan to end discrimination against homosexuals in the military. It is highlighted by the opposition of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the doubts expressed by members of Congress, including Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee.

In a much anticipated speech on the Senate floor yesterday, Mr. Nunn reeled off dozens of questions about lifting the gay ban, including rewriting the Uniform Military Code of Justice -- which outlaws sodomy-- deciding whether same-sex couples should be allowed to dance together at base social events and whether they would need to be housed separately from heterosexuals.

The impression Mr. Nunn clearly left was that he felt Mr. Clinton and his advisers had underestimated the complexity of the issue and needed to reflect long and hard on what was entailed "before they take any kind of action that could be final or be perceived as final."

Republicans in Congress have been more direct, accusing Mr. Clinton of failing to consult the military top brass or Congress before committing himself to action, not understanding how Congress works, and being "ill-served" by inadequate staff work.

Why is Mr. Clinton expending so much political capital on this particular campaign promise, a priority only to a minority?

His aides say it is simply a matter of conscience: He made the promise and is determined to fulfill it. He also was energized by the threat of supporters of the ban, currently a Pentagon directive, to make it law by tagging an amendment onto any bill under consideration.

Said one White House aide: "People would be worried there might be some kind of statutory ban if he hadn't taken action.

"Sometimes, when guided by conscience, you push ahead and let the chips fall where they might. Between a rock and a hard place, the best thing to do is to follow your conscience. This is a clear-cut issue in terms of what he intends to do about it."

Stuart Eizenstat, former President Jimmy Carter's chief domestic adviser, likened Mr. Clinton's initiative on gays to President Carter's pardon of Vietnam draft dodgers in his first hour in office.

"You want to get controversial issues behind you as quickly as possible," he said. "This one can't be done quite so easily [as the Carter pardon] . . . but he would have been much worse off had he dragged this out and made it look like he was bending to pressure from the military chiefs. In the long run, even if he loses, it won't be because he didn't try."

Stephen Hess, senior fellow in governmental studies at the liberal Brookings Institution, took the opposite view: "I don't think it was politically astute. I don't think it was wise . . . to devote so much of his first week to something that is marginal."

In pursuing this particular initiative Mr. Clinton stands to achieve, either deliberately or coincidentally, three things:

* Dramatically demonstrate that he can keep a campaign promise after retreating from a middle-class tax cut and failing to have his economic package ready as promised on the day after he was sworn in.

"He obviously has jettisoned a lot of his campaign promises, and this is one opportunity where he is showing that he will stand by what he said in the campaign and will fight for it," said David Boaz, of the free-market CATO Institute.

* Show that he is willing to assert his leadership, even in the face of daunting opposition.

David Bositis, senior researcher in political science at the Joint Center for Political Studies, a think tank, said: "He has to be doing something to show he is not a Jimmy Carter in the making."

-- Consolidate support of the liberal wing of the party before he introduces his economic package, which is likely to be a fiscally conservative blend of tax increases and spending cuts with only a marginal stimulus package of about $20 billion.

David Mason, an expert on presidential-congressional relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said: "I think he is showing one part of his constituency that he will keep his promises, therefore laying the groundwork for having those people on his side on other battlegrounds."

But Mr. Clinton also risks repeating the administration's blunder on Zoe Baird -- underestimating the opposition and suffering a major defeat.

Congress could reintroduce the gay ban in defiance of his executive order and then override his veto of their legislation, a devastating political setback for a novice president. The phone lines between the White House and Capitol Hill have been busy these past days to avoid a showdown.

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