Political advice will help Clinton make decisions ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

February 02, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- One of the things for which Bill Clinton's presidential campaign was most noted, and praised, was its political antenna -- the ability to spot opportunity or trouble and react quickly and effectively to it. The campaign in Little Rock created a "rapid-response" team to carry out decisions made in a campaign "war room" to apply either positive spin or damage control.

The field general for the operation was James Carville who, along with his partner Paul Begala, kept the campaign on its toes to make hay out of any lapse by the Bush campaign or to pour water on any negative development that came up on the campaign trail or in the news.

But both Carville and Begala are back in the political consulting business again, pointedly not involving themselves in the business of running the new government in whose election they played instrumental roles. The political arm of the administration has been moved to the Democratic National Committee under the direction of Clinton's campaign manager in Little Rock, David Wilhelm.

In all the talk since President Clinton's inauguration about early missteps, such as the withdrawn nomination of Zoe Baird to be attorney general and the flap over gays in the military, the political sure-footedness that marked the Clinton campaign has not been in evidence. One obvious reason is that the new administration is still getting its feet on the ground. Such mundane matters as getting families settled into new houses, not to mention the task of filling the many available administration positions of importance, have seemed to throw the new team somewhat out of kilter.

Not surprisingly, all this was fodder for discussion at Camp David last weekend as the new president summoned his Cabinet and other top officials, notably including Wilhelm, the new party chair, to take stock of what has happened so far and what Clinton wants to happen. As a result, it is likely that efforts will be made to infuse the new administration with the same sort of mechanism for political response to problems as they arise that marked the successful presidential campaign.

Carville has made it clear that he does not want any job in the administration, and Begala, who considered the possibility, has decided to stay outside in the political consulting business, expecting both he and Carville will be called in to provide political input from time to time.

Clinton has demonstrated over the past year that he has a pretty good political antenna himself, as well as a remarkable ability to navigate around the political shoals that lurked along his way to the White House. But the pressures on him in his first weeks in office, both ceremonial and substantive, have underscored a need for more detached, sound political advice.

One of the criticisms of President George Bush was that once he took office, he shunted politics aside almost contemptuously and focused on governing, particularly in the foreign-policy realm. Critics and aides alike say now that one reason Bush in 1990 broke his famous "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge made at the 1988 Republican National Convention was that he didn't grasp what the deeply destructive political ramifications of that action would be for him.

Clinton on the other hand was celebrated in Arkansas for his ability to wed the tasks of politicking and governing, and to relish the practicing of each as he did. He was also widely praised in the 1992 campaign for standing up to special interests, best symbolized by his confrontation with Jesse Jackson in the Sister Souljah controversy.

In both the Baird nomination and the gays-in-the-military matter, he has been seen, accurately or not, as being unduly influenced by political pressure groups, risking the erosion of one of his most valuable political strengths -- that he is different from the usual cut of Democrat of the liberal heyday.

One of the most notable aspects of Clinton's inaugural address was that it hewed closely to the pledges he made as a candidate.

As the realities of governing increasingly stray from the promises of campaigning, the need for a dependable political antenna also grows -- to remind the president of those promises, and to help explain divergences from them when they are deemed necessary.

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