Troubles with old allies hinder Clinton's efforts ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

May 21, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's immediate problem is with the moderate-to-conservative Democrats who are supposed to be his ideological soul mates -- his old allies in the Democratic Leadership Council. But he is also falling short with liberals.

The resistance to the new president within his own party is serious enough to threaten the core of the program on which he was elected and has staked his presidency.

In the Senate, prominent figures from the DLC are thwarting Clinton at every turn. Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, one of the founders of the group, has made a personal crusade of defeating the new president on the question of homosexuals in the military. Sens. John Breaux of Louisiana, the current chairman of the DLC, and David Boren of Oklahoma are leading the resistance to Clinton's economic package and particularly the energy tax.

In the House, the resistance to the budget from Rep. Charles Stenholm of Texas is no surprise; he was one of the leaders of the "boll weevil" conservative Democrats who threw in with then-President Ronald Reagan to pass his budget plan 12 years ago. But the list of prominent dissenters also includes Rep. David McCurdy of Oklahoma, who was close enough to Clinton to be considered for a Cabinet job.

In one sense, the problems with the conservative Democrats should come as no surprise. Although he advertised himself as a "different kind of Democrat" in the campaign last year, Clinton always has been liberal on most social issues -- the death penalty is the one obvious exception -- and his economic package as a whole was more liberal than the DLC types would have preferred.

But what is most intriguing, and potentially threatening to

Clinton, is that these Democrats with whom he was so closely associated in the past have been unwilling to cut him any slack. Four months into his presidency, they are threatening to cut the heart out of his economic plan, the centerpiece of his presidency.

What is missing is any strong counterpressure from the more conventionally liberal Democrats. He has had some help, such as that from Rep. Barney Frank in trying to find a solution to the gays-in-the-military controversy. And liberal leaders such as Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, Speaker of the House Tom Foley and House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt have remained steadfastly in his corner.

But there is no sign of a liberal group developing as an offset to those House boll weevils or of prominent liberals in the Senate aligning themselves conspicuously with the new president.

One reason clearly is that the new president also has disappointed the liberals on some questions. Black Democrats, for example, felt they had a major stake in the jobs bill that the White House had to throw over the side because of its own ineptitude in dealing with the Senate. Others are unhappy about the way Clinton has rolled over on the Haitian immigration issue and military action against Bosnia.

The heart of the problem, as Clinton himself has suggested repeatedly, is that he is prescribing tough medicine for the economy. No politician likes to vote for higher taxes. It was much easier to go along with Reagan when he was offering everyone a free lunch in 1981. Clinton is promising a deferred and uncertain reward.

More to the point, right now Clinton is holding a very small pair. The decline in his approval ratings in the opinion polls, particularly when coupled with the growing perception here that the White House is inept, has left the new president with little political leverage.

Those doubts about the skills of Clinton and his advisers are probably more important than they should be. But atmospherics are important in politics, and the new president who seems over his head engenders great uneasiness even among his party colleagues. The obvious example is the way President Jimmy Carter's stock declined so rapidly in the second and third years of his presidency.

In most respects, the Clinton and Carter situations don't bear comparison; the times are entirely different, as are the issues. But Clinton, like Carter, has not paid enough attention to building alliances in Congress to see him through the rough times. Now Clinton desperately needs allies in Congress.

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