Liberals losing patience with president they chose THE POLITICAL SCENE

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

June 05, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- It doesn't take a political genius to know that the Lani Guinier episode is still another case of President Clinton's shooting himself in the foot. You can hear that on any street corner.

The president once again has managed to put himself on the defensive and quickly blot out the memories of the success he scored only a week earlier in the House of Representatives.

What is less obvious is the way the anger of black leaders at the president's handling of the situation has been exacerbated by the history of their dealings with him -- to the point that Clinton is facing a daunting fence-mending job.

During the 1992 campaign, Clinton raised some unease among black Democrats and other liberals by his emphasis on such issues as welfare reform. They saw that tactic as a not very subtle attempt to send a coded message to conservative white Democrats, and they were dead right. Moreover, it worked.

For the same reason, they were dubious about the way he seemed to schedule his appearances in the black community so that they received minimal attention on the television network news. Again, the suspicions were justified, and the tactic succeeded.

But Clinton enjoyed the support of many important black leaders, such as Rep. John Lewis and Mayor Maynard Jackson of Atlanta, who argued successfully with their colleagues that the important thing was for Clinton to win the election. They swallowed his attempts to reach those "Reagan Democrats" because they saw them as necessary.

The payoff, they told themselves, would come from getting the Republicans out of the White House.

So prominent black Democrats shrugged it off when Clinton affronted the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson by attacking rap singer Sister Souljah in an appearance at a Rainbow Coalition meeting here. The important thing, Maynard Jackson argued, was to get that Democrat into power.

But the payoff has not materialized. Indeed, Clinton made a hash his first major opportunity by his mistaken strategy in trying to get the jobs-stimulus bill through the Senate. It was that bill, of all offered by the administration so far, that had the highest priority for urban blacks who desperately need the jobs it would have provided.

Given that history, it is not surprising that there was at least TTC unease and perhaps some feeling of alienation when the two major developments of the week from the White House were the hiring of David Gergen, late of the Reagan administration, and the scuttling of the Guinier nomination. The Democratic Party's most loyal constituents have reason to wonder when they get theirs.

Clinton's problems with the Democratic left are not unlike those that George Bush experienced with the Republican right -- a persistent suspicion that he really isn't one of them, despite his -- adherence to liberal positions on such issues as abortion rights and gays in the military.

And the obvious response is to ask where the liberals are going to go. Clinton may have been elected as "a different kind of Democrat" -- meaning, among other things, one not a prisoner of the party's constituency groups -- but he is still far more sympathetic to liberal concerns than any Republican or Ross Perot.

But politics is not that simple. It is true that the past several elections have demonstrated that a Democrat cannot win the presidency on liberal and black votes alone. But it is equally true that no political leader can risk alienating his party's most faithful constituencies. In the Democratic Party, the energy comes far more from the left than the center.

Clinton's decision to pull the plug on Guinier is not enough, in itself, to open some irreparable breach between himself and the Democratic left. There will be other appointments to be made, including those to the Supreme Court as well as the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, and other battles to be waged over legislation important to liberals in general and blacks in particular.

But the new president now has a pressure from the left that it will be difficult to ignore in future White House decisions. In the eyes of the liberal activists, black and white alike, the Lani Guinier affair was not an isolated failure but part of an unsettling pattern.

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