Clinton policy switches risk slickness label ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

March 04, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- When was the last time you can remember a Cabinet member saying, on national television or anywhere else in public, that the president under whom he was serving had taken an "unsound" campaign position?

That unlikely observation, by Secretary of State Warren Christopher on NBC's "Meet the Press" last Sunday, set the stage for the Clinton administration's defense before the Supreme Court of a general policy on Haitian refugees that candidate Bill Clinton castigated as "cruel" under President George Bush.

Clinton had said as a candidate that Haitian refugees should have the same rights to apply for political asylum as anyone else, and that the Bush administration was wrong to intercept boats of fleeing Haitians and force their return to Haiti.

But, after his election, Clinton said he had become convinced that the ocean crossings in makeshift boats had become so perilous that the prudent course was to continue that policy pending safer means for those seeking asylum to apply.

Christopher argued in his television comment that he didn't think voters would "want anybody to keep a campaign promise if it was a very unsound policy." For the chief officer of the American striped-pants set, it was undiplomatic language, to say the least.

Even Richard Nixon after Watergate was able to come up with the memorable dodge that "mistakes were made."

The administration, in the face of charges that it is continuing the Bush policy in violation of immigration law and U.S. tradition, insists that its own policy -- temporary, Clinton says -- differs, in that it is streamlining procedures for asylum application within Haiti.

But the important point in terms of domestic politics is that the Clinton administration, while bending over backward to fulfill some campaign promises, notably in the ethnic and gender diversity of Cabinet appointments, is not letting the positions of Candidate Clinton lock in President Clinton across the board.

Once again the lesson has not been lost on Clinton of how George Bush locked himself in for nearly two years as president with his categorical and oft-repeated no-new-taxes campaign pledge, and then caught unshirted hell from conservatives for breaking it -- and not adequately explaining why. Clinton has been careful not to be quite so categorical on his campaign positions, and to spell out why, promptly and in detail, when he breaks with one.

So far, Clinton does not appear to have been hurt politically either by his switcheroo on Haitian refugees or on the much more politically sensitive matter of brushing under the rug the middle-class tax cut he spoke of in the early 1992 primaries, coming up instead with an energy tax that hits the middle class.

It is very early in the Clinton administration, however, and looming as a potential pitfall for the new president is the "Slick Willie" problem. Well before his election, the moniker slapped on Clinton by the Arkansas press during his gubernatorial years found ready application in the presidential campaign.

The notion that Clinton was clever in the art of dissembling gained credence with such intrinsically unimportant matters as whether as a young man during the Vietnam era he ever smoked marijuana.

That allegation had already been politically vetted by the 1988 admissions of Democratic candidates Al Gore and Bruce Babbitt, both of whom admitted having committed the evil deed in their youth and walked away politically unscathed.

But Clinton found it for some reason necessary to give an artful answer about not breaking the laws of his state or country, admitting only when asked directly during the New York primary that he took a puff or two in England as a graduate student -- but didn't inhale. The whole business was silly -- except in that it alerted the wary voter to the candidate's penchant for semantic games-playing.

Clinton's willingness now to say he was wrong about some things in the campaign, such as the Haitian refugee situation, or that circumstances have changed requiring him to change, is a healthy trait in a leader. But given his track record as "Slick Willie," he is going to have to live with a fair amount of public skepticism for a while longer.

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