Clinton squeaks through, but he'd better watch out ON THE POLITICAL SCENE



WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's whisker-thin triumph in the Senate sends a mixed political signal.

On the one hand, it is clear that most Democrats in Congress recognize they have a stake in the success or failure of the first Democratic president in 12 years. Otherwise, the president never would have prevailed in either the Senate or in a similar narrow escape in the House earlier with an economic plan that is largely castor oil.

And that reality, in turn, means the odds favor the White House's finally getting from a House-Senate conference committee an economic plan it can claim as a success, even if it takes the rest of the summer to do it.

But it is equally clear that Clinton is not a president who inspires fear or enlists political loyalty among his party colleagues.

The reason is obvious. The new president has made a wretched beginning in terms of displaying either competence or constancy in the White House and, as a result, is suffering from such high negatives in the opinion polls no one wants to be on the same team. The dimensions of the defeat suffered by Bob Krueger in the special Senate election in Texas just three weeks ago underlined the weakness of the Democratic message right now.

The White House can draw some comfort, of course, simply from the fact the economic plan made it through the Senate, even if it required the vote of Vice President Al Gore. And the predictable hints that there were one or two negative votes that could have been reclaimed if absolutely needed to avoid defeat may be accurate enough.

But for voters less interested in arcane political positioning, the Senate vote reinforced the picture of a new president walking a fine line between survival and disaster on the central program of his new administration. And that picture, in turn, makes it more difficult for the White House to present Clinton as now a leader on a roll with strong political momentum.

Perhaps the most damaging vote against the plan was that cast by Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, leading critic of Clinton's proposal to reverse the prohibition against homosexuals in the military and, perhaps not incidentally, a man who would have liked to be president himself.

Nunn was not in a politically tenuous position similar to that of Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, who represents a state in which the anti-tax fervor has become a preoccupation if not an obsession. On the contrary, Nunn is a political icon in Georgia who would have nothing to fear however he voted on the economic plan.

More to the point, with Lloyd Bentsen now in the Cabinet, Nunn is the one Southern conservative in the Senate with anything approaching a broad following among Democrats all across the region. Thus, it would be no surprise if his vote against the economic plan were seen by other conservatives as at least a tentative verdict against the "different kind of Democrat" from Arkansas they helped elect last year.

To change those atmospherics in the electorate, Clinton needs to improve his position in those national opinion polls. Even the politicians quickest to condemn them as meaningless read them avidly and allow their attitudes to be shaped by the figures. If Clinton's approval rating had been 60 percent rather than less than 40 percent when the Senate voted, it would have been no surprise to see a more comfortable margin.

In fact, there have been some findings in the poll data that may be at least marginally encouraging to the White House. The most recent surveys show that Clinton's decline in his approval ratings has at least leveled off, even if at an unimpressive point below 40 percent. And other surveys have found there is still a substantial segment of the electorate -- over half in some polls -- willing to give Clinton more time to prove his competence.

But the latest polls also are producing some menacing numbers. On the weather vane question of whether the country is "heading in the right direction" or "off on the wrong track," the "wrong track" level has crept up to 70 percent or higher.

In short, the imperative for Clinton, as it has been for weeks, is to change the psychology in the political community by changing it in the electorate. And that is not something that can be accomplished with successes that require Al Gore's racing to the Capitol to cast a saving vote at 3 a.m.

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