It's Hard To Govern from the Center

September 05, 1993|By CARL M. CANNON

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Earlier this summer, when President Clinton announced his long-awaited compromise between loggers and conservationists over timber-cutting in the Pacific Northwest, the reaction was predictable:

Timber industry representatives denounced the plan as dreadful and one-sided, predicting it would lead to massive layoffs. Meanwhile, environmental groups lambasted the plan for allowing some logging in old growth forests and expressed deep disappointment in a president they had supported in 1992.

The political center is where the vast majority of Americans reside on almost every important public policy issue facing the country. Polls, focus groups, interviews and the election returns themselves show consistently that American voters want politicians to end "gridlock" by embracing pragmatic, non-ideological, bipartisan decisions.

Yet, Mr. Clinton is finding out that representing that majority can be a thankless job -- and that the nation's political institutions are not set up to deal very well with non-ideological decisions.

Think of America's political system as being like a giant courtroom. Big cases (elections) are decided by juries and judges (voters) who are supposed to divine truth after listening to the extreme, polemic-based arguments of attorneys (candidates' ads and speeches.) Both systems reward diligent advocates who can hone their arguments. Its drawback is that neither system is a very precise search for the truth, which often goes unrepresented.

If the political center had a lobby as visible as the Sierra Club or as powerful as the American Forest & Paper Association, surely it would have heaped praise on the president and his interior secretary for addressing the concerns of all sides in trying to break a stalemate that has paralyzed logging in the Northwest without providing any real protection for the forest.

Interest groups not only get themselves on television and in print with criticisms of compromise decisions. They also influence congressional votes, make political contributions and mobilize groups of highly-motivated voters and political volunteers.

"It seems that no good deed in politics goes unpunished," said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. "Politics is conducted by the extremes at the elite level and often passes over the great majority of ordinary Americans who have more pragmatic, non-ideological views."

Mr. Clinton and his advisers are well aware of this fact -- and made good use of their perception last year during the campaign when Mr. Clinton vowed to "end gridlock" if he reached the

White House.

Perhaps more significantly, Mr. Clinton also promised to be "a different kind of Democrat." This pledge was made in response to a remarkable facet of modern American politics: A presidential nominating system that almost ensures that the Democratic presidential nominee will be more liberal than the majority of Americans while the Republicans are choosing someone more conservative.

Most of the attention focused on this phenomenon has delved into how and why this favors Republican candidates, who have won 7 of the last 10 presidential elections. But now, with a Democrat in the White House, the more relevant and pressing question is whether a president from the liberal party will be able to govern from the political center the way Mr. Clinton appears to want to do.

"It's a great question," said Adam Meyerson, editor of the Heritage Foundation's conservative Policy Review. "I'm not sure he's attempting it, but I am sure of this: It's no longer possible to govern as a liberal. Liberalism has reached its fiscal limits. You cannot satisfy all the special interest groups in the liberal firmament and still serve the American people."

But special interest groups come in all stripes, points out Nelson Polsby, a University of California political scientist. And whether they are liberal, conservative or oriented around a business or labor interest, the leaders of these groups rarely believe that it's in their interest to take moderate or reasonable positions.

"Interest groups have their constituencies," said Mr. Polsby. "They are trying to mobilize their own people. Their job is to make sure that people continue to find their issue salient . . . [and] so they tend to make their cases in primary colors."

Mr. Clinton, who usually prefers pastels, has been roundly criticized from both sides on a lengthening list of issues: gays in the military, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), civil rights appointments, the recent decision on wetlands protection.

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