President reminisces about the good old days ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

August 18, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

TULSA, Okla. -- President Clinton indulged himself in a little understandable nostalgia when he appeared before the annual conference of the National Governors' Association here. This is an organization he once headed and, not incidentally, used to project himself onto the national political stage.

Clinton always seemed to enjoy these conferences because they offered him the opportunity to schmooze about policy questions and to try to find some proposals for solutions on which the governors could agree on a bipartisan basis. In developing many of the association's policy positions, the then-governor of Arkansas was a leading figure.

But it is to be hoped that the president understands that those policy positions were only that -- essentially wish lists on which the state executives could agree because their common problems as governors were more compelling than their partisan interests as Republicans and Democrats. Complaining about the federal government is essentially a non-partisan exercise.

The president clearly longs for those simpler days in Little Rock. "I miss the way we make decisions," he told his former colleagues. "I miss the sort of heart and soul of fabric of life that was part of every day when I got up and went to work in a state capital. Somehow we've got to bring that back to Washington."

By contrast, Clinton described the national arena as a place where "consensus is often turned into cave-in" and "people who try to work together and listen to one another instead of beat each other up are accused of being weak, not strong." Given the reputation he has acquired for being weak, it was a remarkably defensive statement.

But Clinton is kidding himself if he thinks there is any easy way to accomplish the kind of significant changes he is trying to make on issues such as health care reform. Although he received a warm reception from governors of both parties here, it already clear that many Republican governors have set their feet in concrete to resist an essential element of the Clinton plan -- universal health insurance coverage mandated from Washington.

More to the point, Clinton has to realize that the political arena in Washington is, perhaps necessarily, less civilized than that at a conference of governors. These meetings make valuable political forums for governors with national ambitions, but they don't make any decisions that have any direct impact on the lives of their constituents.

By contrast, dealing with Congress, the president is confronting 535 individuals with their own political concerns. That was apparent in the nitpicking debate over Clinton's budget and will be even more evident as he tries to fashion a health care reform package with a Congress beset by dozens of special interests.

There is also a difference in the press coverage at the state and national levels. Although statehouse reporters are often every bit as skilled and aggressive as those in Washington, there is a difference that grows out of simple mass. There are so many reporters from so many competing media who cover the federal government that every stone is certain to be overturned and examined. And if reporters in Washington miss something, there are countless agents of special interests who will point them in the right direction.

The advantage governors enjoy in contrast to presidents is the ability to easily set the agenda for debate on public policy. If a governor has a tax plan, for example, he can be assured of at least the first chance to make his case to his constituents. On the national level, that isn't the case.

This difference is clear on health care reform. As a candidate last year, Clinton recognized the importance of the issue to voters and made his promise of reform a campaign centerpiece. He is now scheduled to outline the details next month, eight months after taking office.

Meanwhile, all the competing interests -- Republicans and Democrats, health insurance companies, physicians, hospitals, pharmaceutical manufacturers, unions and businesses both large and small -- have made their complaints about the features they expect in the program.

This is not a situation in which Clinton can sit down in a civilized dialogue with other governors and find common ground. It is one in which he alone must provide the leadership.

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