Clinton's programs still need their liberal base

ON POLITICS

December 03, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The Democratic Leadership Council meeting here this week has some reason to feel a little smug. One of its former chairmen is president of the United States and he has just made a political leap forward by defying one of the Democratic Party's most important liberal constituencies, organized labor, on the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But anyone who believes President Clinton can enjoy long-term political success -- meaning re-election in 1996 -- by relying on the conservative Democrats of the DLC and alienating his party's base has only to study the experience of former President George Bush. It just doesn't work.

So the operative question now is whether Clinton can find a way to make common cause with his liberal supporters without appearing to become their captive. The answer may lie in the outcome of the contests over two issues coming up next on the national agenda -- health-care reform and welfare reform.

Clinton's prospects of passing a health-care plan worthy of the name of reform seem to rest largely on liberal Democrats and, to a lesser extent, a few moderate Republicans. The one essential and non-negotiable element of the president's plan is the mandated universal coverage that has been the bedrock underlying principle from the outset.

The liberal Democrats, most of them supporters of a government-run "single payer" system of health care, and moderate Republicans led by Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island accept that principle. The ostensibly centrist alternative plan being offered by Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana and Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee does not. It is just that simple.

Given those facts of life, the notion of Clinton's relying on heavy Republican support for a health-care plan such as he enjoyed on NAFTA is totally unrealistic. If there is a serious reform approved by Congress, it will begin with support in the center and move to the left to take in those advocates of single-payer who recognize the time is not yet right for their solution.

At the same time the president is building that coalition, however, he is likely to be involved in the touchy business of delivering on welfare reform. And it is here that liberals are most suspicious of their new Democratic president.

Clinton succeeded in winning the Democratic nomination and the presidency by presenting himself as a "different kind of Democrat" -- which meant one who would not accept all the old liberal nostrums and who would not be pushed around by the constituencies of the Far Left. One of the ways Clinton projected such an image was his stress on welfare reform and what he called the need for "personal responsibility" by everyone from corporate executives to welfare beneficiaries.

Candidate Clinton's talk about welfare reform always made black Democratic leaders and some of their liberal allies a little uneasy. Was this "responsibility" he kept talking about, they asked, a code word for criticism of black welfare recipients? Nor has either candidate Clinton nor President Clinton been reassuring to liberals in general and black leaders in particular on other issues. The one prime goal of the big city mayors, for instance, was the help on jobs included in the economic stimulus bill that the White House clumsily mismanaged into defeat.

Liberals also have not been satisfied with Clinton on foreign policy. Most of the pressure for more action on Bosnia and Haiti has come from the Democratic left, and neither goal was realized.

Now Clinton is talking about a plan to limit welfare recipients to two years, rather than allowing the dole to become "a way of life," and moving them into training and jobs, perhaps with federal subsidies to private employers paving the way. It obviously will be a difficult sell, particularly when there is simply no new money for ambitious social spending plans.

But the way Clinton handles health-care and welfare reform will go a long way to define his presidency -- and answer the political question as to whether he can govern as a "different kind of Democrat" and hold the party's liberal base.

As Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis demonstrated, a Democrat cannot win the presidency on liberal support alone, but it is equally accurate to say he cannot win without it.

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