Those Deadlocked Democrats

June 13, 1993

Gridlock was the leitmotif of the 1992 presidential campaign Everybody was against it. Ross Perot vowed he would "send a guy (into Congress) with a chain saw to break the gridlock." George Bush railed against the "gridlock Democratic Congress." Bill Clinton said, "We've got to do something to break the gridlock in Washington," and then went on to describe himself as "the only person with a proven record of passing sweeping reform through the legislature."

All too true, but he was talking about the Arkansas legislature, where Republicans hide under the porch. So it was probably inevitable that Bill Clinton would declare at his inaugural that "the era of deadlock and drift is over." He was, after all, a would-be successor to John F. Kennedy, who had a 76.6 percent pass record in Congress compared with Mr. Bush's 43 percent. He was, after all, the politician who claimed he understood how "to get the best out of people in the legislative process."

Now, Mr. Clinton is discovering that unlike those Arkansas Republicans he has no place to hide. No excuses to offer. He is a Democratic president dealing with a Democratic Congress and not even Bob Dole can be blamed for the current Capitol Hill gridlock over the massive Clinton economic package. This mess is testimony that D not only stands for Democrat, it stands for Deadlock.

Consider the spectacle. Unlike the ill-considered Clinton stimulus package, which sent a message contradictory to deficit reduction, the huge reconciliation measure now on the Senate ++ agenda cannot be filibustered to death by the GOP minority. All the Democrats have to do is keep their ranks intact and they can pass anything they want.

But as Mr. Clinton is fast discovering, there is nothing Democrats enjoy more than self-immolation. Especially when they suspect the president is the fellow who lights the match. Mr. Clinton has simultaneously outraged blacks and liberals in the House and convinced Democratic conservatives in the Senate he can be rolled. Woe betide the president who arouses no fear on the Hill!

Is this all Mr. Clinton's fault? Not really. His troubles are undoubtedly greater because of his repeated retreats and flip-flops. But the awful truth, a truth that might even withstand a Perot chain saw, is that American government is almost structured for gridlock in its present mode. Party control, congressional leadership control, committee chairmanship control -- all have deteriorated as individual politicians rely on their own devices and high-tech PR-fund-raising techniques. If Mr. Clinton's presidency is a disappointment till now, it is because he underestimated the obstacles and overestimated his own charms.

What he still has going for him is a deep national yearning for an end to gridlock and a return to government that can get things done. If he ever displays sufficient personal strength and resolution, he may even be able to discipline those deadlocked Democrats. The nation waits.

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