Where Tokyo Meets Ol' Man River

DANIEL BERGER

July 17, 1993|By DANIEL BERGER

The Tokyo summit and its putative trade agreement over sushibetween President Clinton and the humiliated Prime Minister Kiishi Miyazawa may not have done much for the president. It was a triumph for the prime minister.

Mr. Miyazawa presided as host of the summit despite the vote of no confidence against him and the campaign for tomorrow's election that made him, in Japanese idiom, a ''dead body.'' (We would say ''lame duck.'')

No American knows whether the agreement in reality will open Japan to American commerce and industry. What Japanese know is that the Americans were pacified, and they hope without undue sacrifice on their part.

That is what the Liberal Democratic Party has done in power for 38 years. That is why Mr. Miyazawa and other LDP leaders made it central to their last days of campaigning, eliciting fear that opposition politicians could never tame the tiger as Mr. Miyazawa did.

And in the past few days, the showing of the discredited, scandal-tinged LDP has improved. The likelihood has increased that it will emerge from the election as the leading party in a coalition government that will not be all that much different from past LDP governments.

Mr. Clinton also had an outside helper for his political standing at home, but it wasn't Mr. Miyazawa. It was Ol' Man River.

Mr. Clinton's well-televised treks to the levees before and after Tokyo were what he does best, an energetic show of involvement in the problems of everyday Americans.

One might argue that a presidential visit to an emergency co-opts precious resources for a photo opportunity and achieves nothing that the president cannot do better from the Oval Office.

But Mr. Clinton knows how much President Bush's fishing in Maine when Hurricane Andrews was smashing Florida contributed to Mr. Clinton's victory.

Mr. Bush appeared cold, indifferent, bureaucratic. Mr. Clinton is a hugger. What the American people want is a father figure who can comfort them as Mr. Clinton did the flood victim Christina Hein.

This newly invigorated president does not face an election, however. He faces a showdown on a policy about gays in the military that will harm him politically no matter how resolved.

And most important, he faces the reconciliation of House and Senate versions of the budget. The economic plan is his make-or-break issue.

Only deficit reduction will create the opportunity for a health plan on which Mr. and Mrs. Clinton have raised such high expectations. Only deficit reduction will make the United States once again the superpower it pretends still to be.

Mr. Clinton's foreign policy is not serving his image well. General Aidid, on home turf, is outgunning him. Slobodan Milosevic has stared him down. If Mr. Clinton showed up Mr. Bush with empathy for catastrophe victims, he has been unable to emulate Mr. Bush in lining up allies for a military adventure.

Just as a victory in foreign policy strengthened Mr. Miyazawa domestically, a domestic success would arm Mr. Clinton for the foreign-policy trials ahead.

Part of this would be intangible, the respect that foreign leaders would accord him if they believed him respected in American politics.

But part of it is sheer dollars: Ending the deficit would bring down the cost of debt service and free up dollars for budget expenditure, whether in the social sphere or in military and foreign-aid spending.

Cal Ripken may play stellar defense during a batting slump, but a president cannot for long be weak abroad and strong at home, or vice versa. The two are interrelated.

Mr. Bush's posture as a foreign-policy president undid him when he seemed indifferent to recession. Mr. Clinton wants to be a domestic president, but problems in Somalia, Bosnia, Cambodia and Russia keep smacking him in the face.

Most presidents are known to posterity for their foreign relations, but are re-elected on domestic economic performance.

To this Mr. Clinton has added the expectation of a national health-care system, which he may not be able to deliver. Congress will have a mind of its own.

What it comes down to is that Mr. Clinton's performance in an arena such as the Tokyo summit is important for his domestic policies, and his performance on the Mississippi levees is crucial to his foreign policy.

Isolation is not an option.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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