Doubts about Clinton make chilly atmosphere for sales job on health plan

August 17, 1993|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Staff Writer

BRISTOW, Okla. -- When Rep. Mike Synar finished speaking about health care reform at the Rotary Club here the other day, one member turned to his neighbor and, speaking behind his hand, offered his own analysis of the issue.

"I think Mike's being sincere," he said, "but how can you trust Clinton on this thing?"

The following day, after a similar meeting up the road in Claremore, a small business operator named Hollis Winship told a visitor, "The system is a mess, but nobody trusts the president on this. It's too radical."

These comments -- and many like them offered by voters of Oklahoma's 2nd District -- distill a central question about the impending national debate over health care reform: Does President Clinton have the political credibility to sell a program that will be both complex and expensive?

No one would argue that Mr. Synar's district -- or any in Oklahoma, for that matter -- is prime ground for the president. The notorious conservatism of the electorate is the reason the Democratic congressman has been spending the past 10 days trying to explain his vote for Mr. Clinton's tax-deficit reduction plan and to turn the voters attention to health care.

But the attitudes voters express toward the president here are not much different from what you hear these days from, for example, liberal Jewish voters in Brooklyn -- that is, pervasive skepticism about his motives and candor. What is perhaps most striking is a current of personal dislike for the president.

Some judgments are harsh.

Asked privately what he thinks of Mr. Clinton, a prominent businessman in Tulsa, a longtime Democratic activist, paused about two counts and replied, "I think he's a jerk. I think he's just lying all the time."

George Reeves, a retired businessman who lives near Pryor, was more typical -- less harsh but equally dubious about Mr. Clinton. "He's just not somebody we can trust very much," Mr. Reeves said. "He went back on everything he said when he was running for office, so how can we believe him now?"

Marietta Selden, who works part time as a nurse, suspects political trickery.

"He's trying to hide the fact he's a liberal. Mike Synar is up front about it, so you know where you stand, but Slick Willie, I don't know about him," she said.

This skepticism about the president was clear as Mr. Clinton began his public relations offensive to enlist support for health care reform among governors attending the annual meeting of the National Governors' Association in Tulsa. Just how significant it may be politically depends on the degree to which governors -- and, more important perhaps, members of Congress -- factor it into their judgments about whether to go along with the program.

Here in Oklahoma the tough attitude toward Mr. Clinton made it easy for everyone in the delegation except Mr. Synar to follow the lead of Democratic Sen. David L. Boren and vote against the budget earlier this month. The result has been a predictable outpouring of editorial and popular support for Mr. Boren and his nay-saying colleagues.

One result is that someone like Mr. Synar must walk a fine line in dealing with the health care issue and defending his vote on the budget. Meeting with his constituents, the Democratic congressman is making a case for health care reform while conceding he ran against the tide on the deficit plan. When he told his audience here that his constituents could "hold me accountable" in the election next year if the economy did not improve, several of his listeners nodded vigorously.

After his meeting in Claremore, a retired farmer who preferred to remain anonymous told a visiting reporter, "We've cut Mike Synar a lot of slack on these things, but he's taking a chance lining up with old Clinton."

Mr. Synar is cautious in his advocacy. He praises Hillary Rodham Clinton for the "masterful job" she has done in preparing the options on the health care issue, and he makes an earnest and forceful case for addressing the issue frontally. But he does not volunteer praise of Mr. Clinton or promises of fealty to the president. Instead, he makes the argument that he was giving his constituents his own best judgment on what needed to be done to improve the economy.

"You didn't send me there to weigh my mail or count my phone calls," he said here.

At the Tulsa meeting, the corridor conversation among the governors made it clear that the voters of this conservative Oklahoma district are not alone in their doubts about Mr. Clinton. Asked about sentiment toward the president back home, a Southern Democrat replied, "It's terrible, just terrible. There's no trust here."

Said another Democrat: "Clinton just doesn't have any political capital to spend on this thing. He's used it all up already."

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