Campaigning can't take the place of governing ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

September 09, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton and his advisers in the White House seem to have trouble distinguishing between governing and campaigning. The operative question is whether the voters have the same problem.

Seizing on an initiative with obvious appeal -- better government for less money -- the president is going out on the road to Ohio, California and Texas in another relapse into what the White House calls his "campaign mode." The theory seems to be that Clinton may improve his own less-than-mediocre approval ratings by seizing on an apple pie-and-motherhood issue. If there is any lobby supporting government that is inefficient and expensive, it has yet to surface.

Visiting a government warehouse in suburban Springfield, Va., Clinton himself made his strategy clear. "I think we should begin with this because this is something that will unify Americans and unify the Congress and will prove that we can spend the money we have in appropriate ways and stop wasting so much," he said.

The president's political design goes beyond building support for "reinventing government," however. The theory is that if Clinton can use his identification with the issue to raise his own popularity, he will have more influence with Congress on such vastly more controversial issues as the North American Free Trade Agreement and reform of the health-care system. The showdown on NAFTA is expected late this year; Clinton will outline his health-care plan Sept. 22, setting the stage for what is likely to be debate lasting for several months at the very least.

There is some obvious validity in that strategy, at least up to a point. Most members of Congress do indeed follow the opinion polls closely and know when they should or should not be intimidated. That was never clearer than in the way so many Democrats rolled over for Ronald Reagan during the first year of his presidency. There is no such inclination with Clinton at this point.

In one sense, the president's travels should be welcome news for his supporters and those who agree with him on those important issues. At a minimum, the effort to improve the president's position represents a recognition that he needs to do the political things this time that he failed to do earlier in the year when he lost on his stimulus plan and just barely squeaked by with his economic package.

But the premise on which the Clinton "campaign mode" is founded may be faulty. Earlier in the year the president made several similar trips to speak for his economic package only to find his approval ratings sliding even further. There is no way to determine whether that campaign approach evoked a backlash, but it clearly didn't help.

Similarly, then President George Bush discovered late in 1991 -- that is, once the cheering of Desert Storm died down -- that voters were not diverted from the substance of important issues by the blue smoke and mirrors of personal salesmanship.

The obvious inference is that voters may be more convinced by a president doing his job in the White House rather than stumping in the streets. And no president really needs to travel to make his case. Even at the worst of times, the White House is in a position to control the political agenda.

There is also a risk involved in the campaign mode. Clinton, who has a bit of a red neck, made that clear the other day when he fell into a heated back-and-forth argument with a heckler in Florida that might have been more appropriate for a candidate for sewer commissioner than for a sitting president of the United States.

But Clinton and his political advisers are trapped by their memories of 1992. After lagging badly in the early stages of the campaign, candidate Clinton came out of the Democratic National Convention on a roll that carried him through the November election. If there was one critical ingredient of his performance then, it was his ability to persuade ordinary voters that he understood their concerns and was more capable of dealing with them than either Bush or independent candidate Ross Perot.

But that was the performance of a candidate.

Clinton is now the officeholder responsible for running things, and there is a difference between campaigning and governing.

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