Waco can injure Clinton only if it seems a pattern ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- The White House is making an elaborate effort to hold President Clinton politically harmless from the disaster at Waco by focusing, correctly, on the insane behavior of cult leader David Koresh. And the odds are the campaign will succeed so long as Clinton doesn't allow whatever went wrong at Waco to be seen as part of a pattern.

Instant opinion polls predictably put most of the blame for the tragedy on Koresh rather than the president, Attorney General Janet Reno or the FBI. And that is likely to be the consensus unless subsequent investigations uncover some evidence of blundering that go beyond a mistaken judgment on what was feasible in ending the standoff.

The notion that the president would be blamed directly doesn't square with history. The voters understand that any president is to some extent a prisoner of his advisers and subordinates and cannot possibly have the direct information to make every decision himself.

Thus, for example, although he made a point of accepting the responsibility, then-President Ronald Reagan was not blamed politically for the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut a decade ago. Nor was John F. Kennedy damaged politically from the Bay of Pigs fiasco 32 years ago. Voters understood they were at least in part victims of subordinates' judgments.

So it is safe politically to say, as President Clinton did in this case, that "it is not possible for a president to distance himself from things that happen when the federal government is in control" -- meaning, it happened on my watch so I am responsible even though I wasn't at the scene of the crime.

There are, however, two other political hazards for Clinton in the aftermath of the Waco affair. The first obviously is that he might reinforce the image of Slick Willie by playing too cute a game on the blame question, as he appeared to do when the disaster occurred and he limited himself to a brief written statement while Reno went before one television camera after another to accept the blame.

The second and more serious danger is that the disaster at Waco will be seen as part of a pattern of failures and ineptitude on the part of the new president. The history of the reaction to President Jimmy Carter on the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 and 1980 speaks volumes about this danger.

In the first instance, Carter had broad public support in dealing with that crisis. But the line of support in the opinion polls began a steady decline early in 1980 while the number of Americans faulting the president for his handling of the situation rose until the two lines crossed about five months into the crisis. The problem for Carter was that he already was being seen for other reasons as being weak and ineffectual so that the hostage crisis eventually caused that opinion to crystallize -- and was very much responsible for his defeat by Reagan in November 1980.

There is no similar pattern marking Clinton's performance yet. But he is getting some bad reviews on his handling of the stimulus package in the Senate, on his tactics in pushing for a revocation of the ban on homosexuals in the military and on the political folly of floating that trial balloon on a value added tax for health care on tax day, April 15. As one veteran Democratic congressman put it the other day, "I'm beginning to wonder if this is going to be a long four years."

At the moment, the complaints about the new president are most prevalent among political insiders who follow every nuance of Clinton's behavior. But political history shows that doubts raised inside the Beltway almost inevitably ripple out to the electorate in a few months. And Clinton's activist approach to governing already has caused clear polarization in the electorate reflected in the fact his own approval rating has dropped just under 50 percent in the most recent surveys.

If Clinton succeeds in bringing about an improvement in the economy and in making even a serious beginning on dealing with the health care problem, none of this nitpicking will matter six months or a year from now. Nor will anyone look back on the fire at Waco as some sign of fundamental failure by the president.

But the fact Clinton can be held harmless right now doesn't mean there may not be political fallout later from the Waco disaster.

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