Halting blunders can do wonders for White House



WASHINGTON -- The new conventional wisdom here -- it can change every 12 minutes or so -- is that President Clinton may have "turned a corner" this week. If so, it is not a moment too soon.

The theory is that the president's legislative triumphs in the Senate, on his economic package and campaign finance reform, and his generally applauded nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the Supreme Court have given him fresh political momentum.

Even his heretofore testy relationship with the White House press corps seems to have improved.

There is no mystery about the dimensions of the president's political problem. New opinion polls continue to show his positive ratings at the lowest level for any president at this point in his first term since such measurements have been taken.

But political professionals understand that such ratings are extremely volatile, if only because most voters don't have as firm an opinion on issues as poll findings would suggest. Moreover, although Clinton's negatives have been extremely high, several polls have found a majority of voters also think he should be given more time to carry out his program. They are, in short, somewhat more patient than the inside-the-Beltway political community.

The credit for the reversal in Clinton's fortunes, if any, is being given to David Gergen, who simply has advised him to do the conventional things other presidents have done when in political trouble. Rather than allowing the Republicans to define him, Clinton has exploited the bully pulpit of the White House to define himself, holding two news conferences within three days to make his points.

In his prime-time appearance the other night, he even borrowed a page from Ross Perot by using colorful charts to support his thesis. In politics, there is no such thing as being too shameless.

The president's success in exploiting the news conference comes as no surprise. On the contrary, the puzzler is why he has not been doing this all along, because he has always been both facile and knowledgeable enough to control such situations. And if Clinton has high negatives, they are nothing compared with those of reporters asking rude questions.

On the face of it, all this concern about Clinton's political momentum would seem to be the ultimate inside baseball. No one imagines that many voters are losing sleep over the president's high negative ratings.

But even politicians who understand the weaknesses inherent in polls also pay attention to them.

All 435 House members and 34 senators are facing re-election campaigns next year, and they must decide how to position themselves in relation to the president and his program.

The most recent political evidence, the special Senate election in Texas two weeks ago, sent chills of apprehension through Democrats. Although the informed consensus held that Clinton did not cost Bob Krueger that election, the 2-to-1 triumph of Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison did demonstrate that having a Democratic administration in the White House -- or at least this one -- was baggage rather than an asset.

Now Democrats in Congress are looking ahead to a series of difficult choices, first on the final version of the economic plan, sometime later on reforms in the health care system. Clearly, they would prefer to be allying themselves with a popular president than one whose image seems beyond repair.

For Clinton, there are two immediate political imperatives.

The first is continuing his "winning streak" -- now at two -- by getting an economic package through final passage and his nominee for the Supreme Court confirmed without any problems. The perception of a president as a winner tends to be self-reinforcing.

Secondly, the president needs a few weeks in which neither he nor anyone in high position in the administration makes any egregious blunders. Some of Clinton's weakness in the polls now can be traced to the fact he is prescribing harsh medicine for the electorate, but most of it is a product of the picture of him as an incompetent surrounded by incompetents in the White House.

At the very least, Clinton's successes this week have stopped the bleeding and forestalled the political obituaries.

But the conventional wisdom is fragile -- and always subject to change on 12 minutes' notice.

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