With 9 million out of work,who cares about the gays? ON THE POLITICAL SCENE



WASHINGTON -- As a candidate for president last year, Bill Clinton's most valuable asset was his ability to keep focused on the issues that mattered most to the electorate. He did so in the face of distractions that would have sent less disciplined candidates off to their couches with the vapors.

But President Clinton seems to have left that special skill back in Little Rock -- or perhaps in the heads of the political consultants he no longer has at his side every day. That is the inevitable conclusion the political community is drawing from the way the White House has allowed what should have been a one-day flap to develop into a weeklong front-page donnybrook over the question of homosexuals in the armed forces.

The most serious of the political gaffes -- and there have been several -- may have been the failure of the president and his advisers to recognize that the issue was made to order for the conservative hosts of radio talk shows. They had already shown their ability to make an unholy stink when they led the opposition to the congressional pay raises two years ago and, just two weeks ago, to the nomination of Zoe Baird for attorney general.

Yet the hemming and hawing by Clinton allowed them the time to touch on the strong strain of homophobia among American men and make them major players in producing an outpouring of telephone calls to Congress and the White House not seen since President Ronald Reagan was wounded by a would-be assassin 12 years ago.

Although opinion polls taken before the issue reached fever pitch showed the voters divided roughly evenly on the question of banning gays from the military, the impression in the public response was that there was a tidal wave of outrage at Clinton's plan to reverse that ban and no one other than the gays themselves supporting him.

Secondly, Clinton clearly underestimated the extent to which Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, would find his prerogatives threatened because he was not consulted early enough on the issue.

The relationship between Clinton and Nunn has not been close. Nunn did endorse Clinton before the pivotal Georgia primary last year, at the same time Gov. Zell Miller officially put himself behind the candidate from Arkansas.

But Clinton political operatives were convinced that Nunn's support was minimal and perfunctory all year compared to that of Miller. And some Democratic professionals are wondering today why Nunn did not alert his fellow Democrat Clinton during the campaign of the nature of the opposition he would face.

Nor did it help matters that Clinton passed over Nunn to name Rep. Les Aspin of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, to be secretary of defense. The rivalry between the two congressional leaders over both substantive defense issues and the political credit has been no secret in Washington. Whatever the reasons, Nunn was left -- even after Clinton's announcement yesterday -- still declaring his preference for "the current policy."

Finally, Clinton and his advisers misjudged the extent to which the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin L. Powell, has become an icon in capital politics after 12 years of Republicans in the White House for whom the assaults on Grenada, Panama and Iraq were high points. The civics books may say that the military takes orders from the civilian commander-in-chief, but Powell felt no hesitation about going public opposing Clinton's gay policy.

The irony in this episode is that it has centered around a question of so little intrinsic significance. There are 9 million Americans who are unemployed, 36 million who lack health insurance, uncounted millions who are receiving inferior educations, major companies going through crises almost daily. But for the first week of the Clinton presidency the country has been debating what may happen in the shower if gays are not kicked out of the military. It is an issue that -- heretofore, at least -- has not been on any poll-taker's list of the central concerns of the electorate.

In short, the Bill Clinton who showed such remarkable tenacity in sticking to the important issues all last year has been replaced, temporarily at least, by one who can be distracted by a noisy protest. Happily for the president, he still has three years and 51 weeks to get back to business.

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