Clinton's week: one step forward, one step back ON THE POLITICAL SCENE



WASHINGTON -- Until the Kimba Wood episode detonated, President Clinton was demonstrating one of the home truths of American politics this week -- that the president, any president, can dominate the national agenda and dictate the interests of both the press and the political community.

What Wood also demonstrated -- in the most vivid terms -- was that the president, any president, can be blown out of the water by circumstances beyond his control.

After a week of wallowing in an unpleasant argument about the proper role of homosexuals in the armed forces, Clinton turned the focus of attention to the issues that, according to both the opinion polls and the election returns, have been the prime concerns of the electorate. Suddenly the discussion centered on what will be included in the Clinton economic package, health care plan and welfare reform.

In short, Clinton and his staff were beginning to show the kind of political smarts that put them where they are in the first place.

The White House seemed to have a new balloon to float every day -- some proposal that might or might not make it into the economic package. There were, of course, some casualties. Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan of New York, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, quickly shot down the idea of putting ceilings on the cost-of-living adjustments in Social Security benefits.

But the significant point politically is that most of the alternatives -- public works spending, tax changes, investment credits, whatever -- were put on the table so it would be possible to learn quickly where the opposition would arise.

There may even have been -- perish forbid -- some tricky stuff. If, for example, Clinton abandons any thought of capping COLAs for Social Security, then the idea of taxing more of the benefits of wealthy retired people may not sound so out of the question.

On two issues raised this week, the politics were obvious but no less effective for being so. The president used the annual winter meeting of the National Governors' Association to talk about welfare reform, an issue always on the front burner with state executives and always a crowd-pleaser with the voters.

During the campaign last year, Clinton used the welfare question as one thing that would define him as "a different kind of Democrat." His talk about welfare being "a second chance, not a way of life" and about "responsibility" on the part of welfare recipients was not the kind of thing Democratic presidential candidates usually stress. For one thing, they are usually afraid black leaders will interpret such talk as coded racism.

But Clinton used the issue effectively with white Southerners and with Reagan Democrats in the Northeast and Midwest. And black Democratic leaders generally were pragmatic enough, after 12 years of Republicans in the White House, to let it pass. As a practical matter, any far-reaching welfare reform is at least two or three years away, perhaps longer, but it didn't hurt Bill Clinton to remind the voters where he was on the question.

On another issue with some sting with the voters, campaign finance reform, Clinton received what might be called a correct but nonetheless underwhelming reception from Democratic leaders of Congress. Like the voters, they profess to want to see the system changed so that lobbyists with political action committees have a little less influence. But they also made it clear they intend to proceed with all deliberate speed. Nothing will take effect before 1996 and, if they can stall it a little longer, no one will be surprised.

But what the politicians in Congress and Clinton both understand is that this is an issue with some heat behind it. No one would argue that voters are not more concerned about their jobs, their health care and their children's education. But much of their anger at the Washington political establishment is focused on what they see as financial corruption. It was an issue that Ross Perot used to obvious effect as an independent candidate last year, and it even had enough thrust to keep the improbable candidacy of Jerry Brown alive for several months.

So there was political value in Clinton's talking about campaign reform, even if he knows he won't be able to do much about it right away.

But much, if not all, of that positive politics was wiped away by the Kimba Wood story. Bill Clinton seemed to be finding his sea legs. Now he will be faced with another round of questions about whether anybody here can play this game.

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