Clinton Tells: He's a Moderate

BEN WATTENBERG

June 17, 1993|By BEN WATTENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington.--There is one question I have wanted to ask Bill Clinton for a long time.

I got my chance, unexpectedly, on Tuesday afternoon, when I attended a White House ceremony announcing a solid new policy for American international broadcasting. Suddenly, I was invited, with one other commentator, to interview the president in the Oval Office.

My question to the president was: ''If you were forced to give a one-word answer, would you describe yourself as a 'liberal' or a 'moderate'?''

In the conversation that followed, the president said he believed he has been unfairly typecast as governing from the left side of the political spectrum. Moreover, he disclosed that he expects to produce further evidence of his centrist economic tendencies later this year.

In answer to my question, Mr. Clinton paused momentarily, and said, ''moderate.'' He quickly added that, of course, it was complex, because he was liberal on civil rights and conservative on crime.

Mr. Clinton thinks he has been mistakenly portrayed as a liberal largely because of the issue of gays in the military, although he has spent little time on the issue since taking office. He does not regard the issue as liberal or conservative. ''To me,'' he said, ''it's an issue of civil liberties.''

He noted that Sen. Charles Robb, a Marine hero and ''one of the most conservative Democrats,'' shared his view. He said he was very pleased that conservative Barry Goldwater had also finally gone public in support of gays in military service.

I asked Mr. Clinton why, if he saw himself as a moderate, there were so few moderates on the White House staff. I said I believed that his originally tough-minded education program had been transformed and diluted by liberals in Congress.

I suggested that the same fate would befall his other most important social programs, crime and welfare, unless he had more of his own ideological White House shock troops to fight for them.

Mr. Clinton said he thought that he would end up with solid crime and welfare legislation. He indicated that he was concerned about what was happening to his education proposal. He had read a critical New York Times op-ed article by Diane Ravitch (former assistant secretary of education in the Bush administration), and had directed policy adviser Bill Galston to find out the state of play.

The president said he had asked Al From, head of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, to work at the White House, but that Mr. From had turned him down. (Mr. From confirms this, noting that the invitation was extended late last year during the transition.)

Mr. Clinton then elaborated, turning to his recently appointed counselor, David Gergen (present at this interview, along with Fred Barnes of the New Republic and senior adviser George Stephanopoulos). He says that everyone is agreed that the current round of tax increases is as much as the economy can afford.

Moreover, Mr. Clinton revealed that he is expecting important budget results from the report of Vice President Albert Gore's ''National Performance Review'' task force, whose recommendations to streamline and slenderize government are expected by fall.

Mr. Clinton emphasized that the Gore report can trigger ''a big round of spending cuts.'' The president is now trying to determine what legislative vehicle would best get the Gore-generated spending cuts into the congressional budget cycle for Fiscal Year '94, which begins Oct. 1, 1993.

Mr. Clinton also cites conservative congressional leader Charles Stenholm, D-Tex., who says the House of Representatives made a massive but little-noticed cut in the current budget proposal, zeroing out any domestic discretionary spending increases for the next five years.

In response to Mr. Barnes' question regarding the process by which he chose Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the Supreme Court, Mr. Clinton said he had started with a pool of about 40 potential candidates.

He narrowed the list down to seven, and then to two fully qualified finalists, Judge Stephen Breyer and Judge Ginsburg, stressing that ''both are moderates.''

Mr. Clinton said he chose Judge Ginsburg because, in a personal interview, he was profoundly impressed by her inner strength and deep conviction: ''As we say down home, her waters run deep.''

So, the president has plenty of answers for his moderate and conservative critics. What he says, and alludes to, makes sense: more moderates to fight his fight, more spending cuts, leaner and meaner government, careful attention to keep the tough integrity of the original domestic agenda he campaigned on.

I'm impressed. All he has to do to win me over is deliver.

Ben Wattenberg, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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