Clinton lets gay issue fog health-care priority ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- Two separate hearings on Clinton administration initiatives have shared Washington's attention this week in a way that brings into sharp focus the political peril to a new president who fails to set clear-cut priorities.

All through 1992, candidate Bill Clinton hammered at one of the initiatives -- health-care reform -- as the key to achieving and maintaining economic recovery. He repeatedly argued that without basic changes in the way the nation deals with the soaring cost of health care, no effective battle could be waged against the federal deficit.

With less consistency, but in courting the support of the gay and lesbian community, candidate Clinton promised to end discrimination based on sexual preference, including discrimination against gays in the military.

Of the two, the first was a matter that had transcendent importance to all but those Americans to whom the high cost of medical care is no particular problem. It was particularly critical to the poor, to the more than 30 million citizens who have no health insurance and to the millions more who fear that job losses would deprive them of the coverage they have.

Beyond that, as the area in which Clinton said huge savings brought by reform would be a key to long-term economic well-being, health-care reform clearly qualified as an issue that warranted his early attention. He was well aware, as he said in campaign speeches, that powerful interests in the health-care industry, especially the insurance business, would howl like "pigs stuck under a gate" at the required changes, but they had to be addressed.

The second issue, ending discrimination against gays in the military, deserved Clinton's attention as a basic matter of human rights. But while the matter warranted the concern of all Americans, it did hold particular interest for the affected segment of the population and needed, politically speaking, to be addressed in a way that would not push it to the forefront of the whole Clinton agenda.

Instead, it was the gays-in-the-military matter that Clinton addressed prominently in the very first days of his administration, ordering an immediate end to the questioning of service personnel on their sexual preference. He thereby conveyed a sense of priority to it that gave it a visibility sustained by this week's congressional hearing. Health-care reform, by the nature of its complexity that could not be satisfied by simple executive action, required time-consuming study.

Clinton sought to underscore the importance of finding a solution to the health-care morass by appointing his wife, Hillary, to head the task force dealing with it.

And anticipating the opposition that radical change would generate, he asked her to cast a wide net for opinions on what course the reform should take.

All this was prudent, but much of it was overshadowed in the early weeks by the furor that his action on gays in the military had triggered.

One of the clearest lessons of the beginnings of the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan presidencies was the manner in which each set his early agenda.

Carter came into the Oval Office with a bushelful of initiatives but, lacking an overriding single priority, he soon bogged down. He chose early on to confront Congress on what should have been a low priority -- water and irrigation "pork barrel" projects -- and got his nose bloodied in the process.

Reagan, on the other hand, set out to cut taxes and raise military spending, both big-ticket items that struck clear themes -- get Washington out of the taxpayers' pockets and shore up the nation's defenses against the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union.

He didn't permit himself to be sidetracked with what he considered secondary matters and got what he wanted from Congress.

Clinton is said to be emulating the Reagan model, but in letting gays in the military share the public spotlight with health-care reform he is seeing his top priority blurred.

His challenge now is somehow to lower the profile of the issue on gays and raise the profile of health care. Given the emotional level to which the first issue has now climbed, it may not be possible.

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