The angrier they are, the better . . .

Sandy Grady

February 17, 1993|By Sandy Grady

IN MOMENTS of talk-show babble during the '92 campaign, Bill Clinton admitted he'd been marked by his Arkansas childhood with a boozy, sometime violent stepfather: "It made me dislike conflict. I tend to be a people-pleaser."

Now we'll see how much Mr. Clinton has grown up.

And the American public, too.

The test of Mr. Clinton's political manhood comes tonight at 9 when he steps into the dazzling TV glare before both houses of Congress and 100 million American skeptics.

The clock starts ticking on Mr. Clinton's presidency at the defining moment when he unwraps his economic plan.

Will this be the sunny, powderpuff Clinton of the '92 campaign who coddled voters with gauzy promises? Or a mature Clinton who risks telling the no-pain-no-gain truth with the bark off?

The more people Mr. Clinton pleases tonight, the bigger the flop. If he wimps out, he'll be a four-year cipher.

The real yardstick will be how many people Mr. Clinton makes mad -- especially lobbyists who ring the Capitol.

Face it, this is an unnatural role for a Democratic president. Mr. Clinton is reversing Democrats' schtick since FDR's New Deal -- spend, expand and to hell with the deficit. "Democrats aren't good at playing Scrooge," said analyst Kevin Phillips.

What is Mr. Clinton's quota of courage?

Sure, his surrogates vow a "tough love" message, some of which we heard in his 11-minute address Monday evening. "A fair share of sacrifice across the board," said budget director Leon Panetta. But two of the bravest ideas -- a freeze on Social Security and new gas taxes -- already have been dumped.

"He wants change but he doesn't have a death wish," said a Clinton insider.

The specter haunting Clinton & Co. is Jimmy Carter's plunge into bad news. Mr. Carter made a similar joint-session speech proposing a gas tax and a 55 mph speed limit in "the moral equivalent of war." Jimmy got the moral equivalent of a raspberry.

A savvier politician, President Clinton avoided President Carter's fiasco by giving voters a test ride. Worrisomely, he was the people-pleasing dodger in a town-hall meeting, saying the middle-class might make a "contribution." (Like the Red Cross, Bill?) He was tougher at the White House when he told business bigshots he'd hammer multi-million-buck executive salaries. Monday evening he returned to the "all-in-this-together" theme, with a few swipes at the "special interests" and their "high-priced lobbyists."

Oddly, Mr. Clinton's delivery of harsh medicine was eased by 1992's losers, Paul Tsongas and Ross Perot.

Mr. Tsongas was the original Bad News Bear. Ironically, Mr. Tsongas was doomed by Bill Clinton's attacks in the Florida primary: "He'll hurt Social Security but I won't mess with it." Now Mr. Tsongas's unpopular themes -- declining U.S. competitiveness and mounting debt -- are Mr. Clinton's song.

But Ross Perot's charts and TV spiel raised the national consciousness on the deficit ("that crazy aunt in the attic nobody talks about"). Mr. Perot's fans saw the $300 billion yearly debt sucking national vitality. You can bet Mr. Clinton's backbone has been stiffened by fear of Mr. Perot.

OK, given the Anger Test as gauge of success, who'll be outraged by Mr. Clinton's "fair sacrifice" program?

doubt we'll hear anguished cries from the over-60 set. The American Association of Retired Persons will yelp over Mr. Clinton's proposal to raise Social Security taxes on couples retired on $32,000-plus a year. The codger lobby will be incensed if Mr. Clinton raises Medicare premiums on the well-to-do.

"It's a down payment on health-care reform," soothes Mr. Panetta. (Doesn't he remember the catastrophic illness plan that sent golden oldies into screaming, car-rocking paroxysms?)

Mr. Clinton's energy tax -- not a pure gas tax but a complicated levy on fuels according to British thermal units -- will create the loudest revolt. You'll hear bleats of disaster from coal, natural gas and oil lobbies.

"It's a job killer," says Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.

Mr. Clinton's gutsiness can be measured by how roughly he treats Washington's sacred cows. Signs are he'll keep hands off the multi-billion space station and the supercollider. If there's no balance -- say, $250 billion in cuts, $250 billion in taxes -- Mr. Clinton's kidding us.

Republicans, of course, will sneer. "Same old tax-and-spend Democrats," Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole predicts. "No new ideas. Not very bold."

That's ritual scorn. If Mr. Clinton stirs hostility from oil lobbyists, the geezer lobby and the National Association of Manufacturers, he may be braver than we thought.

There'll be two gut checks tonight. Has the president matured from people-pleaser into truth-teller? Will Americans, sugar-fed for 12 years, accept pain for future gain?

To quote the old "Laugh-In" mantra: Sock it to us, Mr. President.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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