Selling sacrifice . . .

Sandy Grady

February 24, 1993|By Sandy Grady

IF Ronald Reagan was the Great Communicator, then Bill Clinton deserves the title of the Great Pitchman.

One cartoon summed it up: Middle-aged man is on the phone when his wife says, "Don't bother calling, he's here." Through the picture window can be seen the president knocking on the door.

He's here, he's there, he's everywhere. Unless you blew up the TV set, smashed the radio and hid in the broom closet, it was impossible to avoid Pitchman Bill in the several noisy days since he announced his economic plan.

And know what? The pitch is working.

If you thought Michael Jordan could sell basketball shoes, Joe DiMaggio could sell coffee makers or Ross Perot sell Ross Perot, Mr. Clinton has out-peddled them all.

If the president had been an aluminum-siding salesman, the country would be coast-to-coast tin walls. Give the Man With the Plan an A-plus for his sales blitz.

Start with last Wednesday night's speech to Congress, which I criticized as too windy and unbalanced -- 45 minutes of Santa goodies with 15 minutes of realistic pain. Next day, everyone from bankers to cabbies told me I was wrong. The enthusiasm was a shock. Obviously there was a pent-up hunger for change. Mr. Clinton's savvy, upbeat sincerity wowed most viewers. There were gushing comparisons to JFK and FDR.

Didn't hurt that a middle-class taxpayer would "contribute" around $100 more a year while Mr. and Mrs. Lotsabucks got whacked. Hard.

Pitchman Bill's next several days were an electronic blur. He was a peripatetic Phil Donahue at town-hall meetings. He was Mister Rogers to kids in the East Room. He parried with techies in the Silicon Valley.

He took on a tough audience at Seattle's Boeing, where 28,000 jobs were lost. Always the fervent message: "It will cost more to stand still than it will to change."

Despite his gabbiness and slickness, Mr. Clinton is the best campaigner I've ever watched. Now all the techniques of his '92 campaign are intensified -- Air Force One, a bully pulpit and new-found presidential confidence. In the Southern colloquialism, Mr. Clinton seems "full of himself."

After the Pitchman's hustle, the public was bullish. Both CBS and L.A. Times polls show the public backs Clinton's plan 2-to-1. Mr. Clinton's approval rating jumped from 53 to 64 percent.

Will it be this easy? New guy comes to the White House, juggles numbers, reinvents government and reverses America's decline in a cakewalk?

Not quite.

You sense a double track: Outside Washington's federal enclave, there's hope, will, a suspension of disbelief; inside the Beltway, there's skepticism that President Clinton's plan won't do all he promises even if it escapes the congressional meat-grinder.

Yawning, cynical congressfolk, lobbyists and journalists shrug that they've watched other deficit-busting spectaculars turn into charades.

Are these lines familiar? "This is the biggest deficit-reduction ever -- a half-trillion dollars. We will once again put ourselves on the path to economic growth."

That was George Bush in a national speech, Oct. 2, 1990. Three years later, the deficit is $350 billion.

True, the national mood is different, Mr. Clinton's political skills higher than Mr. Bush's. But can the president keep his program from being nibbled to death by Democrats?

Oh, the Honorables will happily pass Mr. Clinton's $16 billion stimulus package.

To Democrats that's a romp in a chocolate factory. But wait until those long, spring afternoons when droning committees churn Mr. Clinton's tax-and-cut proposals into sausage.

"I plead with you, tell your members of the House and Senate they can't just have the sweet part without the tough part, too," Mr. Clinton told audiences.

But he can't hobble the Senate's 100 meddlesome egos. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, oil-and-gas Democrat from Louisiana, is already plotting to dump Mr. Clinton's energy tax. Then the barons on the Senate Finance panel -- 11 Democrats and nine Republicans -- start their tinkering.

"Just need one defector to kill the program," Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole says, not unhappily.

President Clinton's popularity will dip when the military gays flap resurfaces. Or when Hillary announces more taxes for health reform. Mr. Clinton can't ease the pressure for his economic vision.

Nice start, but the Great Pitchman has to close the deal.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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