Centrists give White House a warning Leadership council watches Perot fans

July 08, 1993|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON -- Leaders of a centrist Democratic group once headed by Bill Clinton issued a thinly veiled warning to the White House yesterday, saying the president needs to push harder for political change if he is to convert crucial Perot voters and win re-election in 1996.

President Clinton and the Democrats "risk blowing a historic opportunity" to become the majority party unless they can deliver on campaign promises of radical political change, said an official of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).

After five months in office, Mr. Clinton has made little progress in gaining support from the 19 million voters who backed independent Ross Perot and who now hold the balance of power in U.S. politics, noted Will Marshall, president of the DLC's Progressive Policy Institute.

"This is going to require much bolder, more assertive leadership than we've seen thus far to dramatize and demonstrate to the independent voters that this president's serious about change," he said.

A written report by Mr. Marshall and Al From, the DLC president, said Mr. Clinton needs to identify "once again" with the interests and values of Middle America, as he did during the campaign.

Mr. Marshall said later that the remarks were aimed as much at Democrats in general and congressional Democrats in particular as they were at Mr. Clinton.

But they followed earlier public efforts by the DLC to prod Mr. Clinton, who chaired the organization until a year ago and used it as a springboard to the presidency. An article by Mr. Marshall and Mr. From in the group's May newsletter noted that Mr. Clinton seemed to be wavering "between the old and new politics," and urged him to be much bolder in meeting his pledge to be "a different kind of Democrat."

The latest comments came at a briefing for reporters on a new, DLC-sponsored study of the Perot phenomenon by White House pollster Stanley Greenberg.

Mr. Greenberg said his study, including what was termed the most extensive poll yet of Perot voters, underscored the importance of implementing Mr. Clinton's agenda for "reinventing government." That agenda, which takes in initiatives such as welfare reform, campaign finance reform and new restrictions on lobbyists, is designed to help position Mr. Clinton as the "new Democrat" he claimed to be in last year's campaign.

"If there's an old Democratic agenda identity [in] the Clinton presidency, it's not going to succeed, it's not going to go beyond its base of 43 percent," said Mr. Greenberg. "The Clinton administration has to feel in its bones the need for a new identity which is focused on the middle class, on government operating in different ways and meeting the needs of people broadly."

But reinventing government, by itself, won't sway Perot voters. It will only get Mr. Clinton a hearing from them, said the White BTC House pollster, whose analysis paints a stark picture of the political challenge facing the president.

Though Perot voters say they want Mr. Clinton to succeed, almost two out of three either view the president negatively or have not formed an opinion of him, according to Mr. Greenberg's poll of 1,200 Perot voters nationwide, conducted in April.

Alienation among Perot voters is so deep-seated that Mr. Clinton may not be able to succeed in winning them over, no matter how well he performs, Mr. Greenberg found.

Focus group discussions with Perot voters in California, Ohio and Maine revealed "a skepticism so great that it diminishes the imagination," he concluded. Perot voters "have trouble believing that government can be changed."

Unlike typical third party movements, the Perot bloc is likely to remain an important force in politics "for the foreseeable future," the White House pollster said.

According to the survey, which also included a sampling of Clinton and Bush voters, Mr. Perot could be a formidable challenger in 1996 if he were the Republican nominee.

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