Clinton's strategy weds politics and governance ON POLITICS

Jack GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

February 16, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's plans to peddle his proposals for economic recovery on all fronts with a far-reaching sales tour by himself and surrogates is an obvious extension of his winning election formula of going directly to the voters.

He conveyed in the late campaign through his bus tours and various talk-show appearances the sense that he wanted to hear what the voters thought, and was listening to them. He has even begun of late to sound like Ross Perot and his references to the "owners" of the country whose servant he is.

But campaigning for office and performing in office are two different things. Campaigning is carried forward on promises, governing on achievement, or at least the appearance of achievement.

George Bush was elected in 1988 in part on his promise that if voters only read his lips, they could be assured he would never raise their taxes. He was thrown out in part because he so conspicuously broke that promise, which was a key litmus test among conservative voters.

There is a school of thought within the Bush administration alumni, however, that the broken no-tax pledge was not in itself Bush's problem, but the cavalier way in which he did it, and his failure to explain why he felt he had to do it. One veteran of both the Bush and Reagan administrations notes that President Ronald Reagan agreed in 1982 to a larger tax increase than Bush did and got away with it because he said it was part of a good deal, and voters were ready to believe him.

In other words, Reagan continued effective politicking after he was in office, to sell the manner in which he was governing. He, and his image-polishers, demonstrated that the skills of campaigning can continue to be useful in the hands of an elected official who uses them to justify the decisions he makes once he is in office.

Those skills are, however, no substitute in the end for achievement in governing. So what Clinton is setting out to do is create the best public climate he can for the difficult battles ahead with Congress over what to do about the economy and the deficit.

Had he begun his presidency immediately with this strategy, it could have been particularly effective, considering the good will that emanated from an exciting inaugural week. As it is, he is nearly a month late getting to the real business for which he was elected, after weeks of relatively secondary diversions over the nanny flaps and gays in the military.

Nevertheless, if he succeeds now in rallying public support for his economic agenda, including calls for public sacrifice, what has gone before will fall into proper perspective. If he can sell his tax reform proposals on grounds of "fairness" rather than as a retreat from his early campaign calls for middle-class tax cuts, and win early enactment of health-care reform, his shaky start will fade from memory.

Clinton from all appearances is well equipped to run a presidency that weds politicking and governing. He is known to relish talking and playing politics and he demonstrated all last year that he is very good at it. And his readiness, even eagerness, to plunge into the details of policy-shaping displays an equal relish for governing.

Bush by contrast seldom displayed real zest for politicking, much preferring governance, and especially governance in the foreign-policy realm, where he did not have to politick excessively with Congress.

Instead of going out into the country to make a substantive case for his domestic programs, he settled largely for going out and blaming Congress for getting in his way.

His 1992 campaign strategists practically had to beg him to start thinking and planning for his re-election effort, and then to get going. Aides acknowledged later that only the challenge of Patrick Buchanan in the New Hampshire primary stirred him to action.

Later, after nailing down the Republican nomination, these same campaign strategists had trouble lighting a fire under him again to start campaigning against Clinton. Aides said he regarded politics as the sleazy side of the business he was in.

Clinton clearly does not share that view. And what we are seeing is an early attempt by the new president to marry politics and governance. This is a marriage that should last, but you never know.

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