Clinton has held his own while in the batter's box ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

August 10, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Like the All-Star break in baseball, the August recess of Congress is the traditional time to take stock of a new administration's batting average. Although the statistics in most polls show President Clinton at best as a good-field, no-hit shortstop, he actually has some things in his box-score line to indicate he has not fared too poorly for a rookie.

There can be little argument that his most prominent achievement, albeit a considerably compromised one, has been squeaking a deficit-reduction package through the House and Senate. The achievement is noteworthy for two reasons: the package was bad-tasting medicine for significant segments of the taxpaying community and it was sold -- barely -- in spite of Republican stonewalling and, in politically effective ways, misrepresentation.

While the Clinton administration dithered, Bob Dole & Co. successfully persuaded millions of middle-income voters that the tax burden would fall heavily on them, which it will not, rather than on the top 1.2 percent of American earners.

Clinton missed by a Washington eyelash -- $4 billion -- his proclaimed target of $500 billion in debt reduction over five years, but only the green-eyeshade types will cavil at that.

The notable thing is that he took on an issue that politicians of both parties have been running from, especially since the borrow-and-spend era of Reaganomics. When President George Bush agreed reluctantly to increase taxes in 1990, breaking his categorical "read my lips" pledge, his popularity crumbled and he soon was wailing that he had made a mistake.

In spite of this signal that new taxes would be political poison, Clinton sought them. He aimed them essentially at the affluent but fell down in failing to inform voters adequately that he was doing so. And with Republican help, the modest 4.3-cent tax increase of a gallon of gasoline was treated by oil state legislators as some sort of middle-income gouging.

For most Americans, it wasn't such terrible-tasting medicine after all, but if voters thought it was, so much more to Clinton's credit was his willingness to risk the political damage.

There were other successes on the Clinton agenda that were zTC somewhat lost in the mud-wrestling over deficit reduction: an innovative if also compromised national service program; legislation mandating family leave for parents with sick kids and other at-home problems; a so-called motor-voter bill that should make registration easier for millions of Americans; an end to the Reagan-Bush era policy of barring abortion counseling in federally supported clinics.

Also, after a series of muffed executive appointments -- from Zoe Baird to Lani Guinier -- that brought sharp criticism that he was indecisive, weak and undisciplined, he came up with three nominations that were widely praised and quickly confirmed by the Senate: Janet Reno as attorney general, Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court and Louis Freeh as director of the FBI.

In foreign affairs, the bragging points were fewer and less impressive: an air attack on a Somali warlord; support of beleaguered Russian President Boris Yeltsin at a summit in Vancouver; the trappings of improved trade relations with Japan at another summit in Tokyo. On the downside, his attempts to win European support for use of force against Serbs in Bosnia last spring fizzled embarrassingly, and he backed off.

Clinton's poor polling numbers were no mystery.

His very public stumbling on the extremely controversial issue of gays in the military hurt him badly and was a serious blunder, if not in principle certainly in timing and execution. His failure to overcome a Republican filibuster that killed his job stimulus package sorely disappointed urban mayors and labor. The botched investigation of the White House travel office fed the impression of amateur night and the trivial matter of the $200 haircut on Air Force One reduced Clinton further to fodder for the Jay Lenos and David Lettermans.

Still, in slightly more than six months, the new president bit off a lot that he and the country are still trying to digest. Whatever the polls say, the jury is still out on Bill Clinton.

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