Clinton finds salvation as non-liberal Democrat

ON THE POLITICAL SCENE

December 04, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- It was sort of old home week yesterday at the annual Democratic Leadership Council conference here, what with former founder and chairman Bill Clinton welcoming his old political comrades-in-arms and assuring them that having campaigned last year as a "new Democrat," he was now governing as one.

It seemed a long time ago that some members of the council were publicly fretting about whether the new president was going to turn out, after all, to be just another liberal.

They professed then to see signs that he was shoving the interests of middle-class Democrats to the back burner to once again champion the traditional liberal constituencies of minorities, poor and otherwise disadvantaged.

He had, after all, reneged on his campaign rhetoric about a tax break for the middle class and in his first months seemed to be falling into old liberal patterns by giving priority to such things as seeking to lift the ban on gays in the military.

But now that Clinton has polished his centrist credentials with his narrow success in getting a deficit-reduction package through Congress and winning congressional approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement over the opposition of unions, a majority of Democratic House members and liberals, the DLCers were happy to embrace him as their own.

He talked proudly of having pried a wayward middle class away from the Republicans and back into the Democratic fold by addressing its needs as well as "those who aspire to be middle class."

And he boasted of already having moved the nation "beyond the failed economic policies of tax-and-spend [the old liberal approach] and trickle-down [the standard Republican]," to policies of "opportunity with responsibility" and "empowerment, not entitlement," pet phrases of the "new Democrats" of the DLC.

Insisting that the tax increases in his budget did not constitute "class warfare" -- the label that conservatives pin on taxes that hit the rich.

Clinton said what they really will do is correct the imbalance of the Reagan-Bush years that benefited the well-off at the expense of the middle class.

The president cited a Kiplinger Report that of 110 million American taxpayers, 108 million or 98 percent of the total would not pay higher income taxes under his approach.

"If you're part of the forgotten middle class," he said, "don't forget that."

He ticked off economic statistics that the previous Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, would have loved to recite -- inflation and interest rates down, 1.6 million new jobs since January, nearly 50 percent more private sector jobs created than in the previous four Republican years.

The president even managed to see success in off-year elections in which the Republicans won both governorships at stake, in New Jersey and Virginia, and the mayoralties in New York City and Los Angeles.

He cited the totally predictable victory of a Democrat in the mayor's race in Detroit and noted that Mayor Bob Lanier of Houston, running on a tough-on-crime platform that is a DLC position, was re-elected with 91 percent of the vote.

The DLCers applauded even that, coming from one of their old leaders and soul mates.

Clinton reminded his audience that seven members of his Cabinet were DLC members as well as a number of other high-ranking officials, whose names he listed, noting that several were supplying "the intellectual firepower" of his administration.

"I believe these ideas are changing America," he said without undue modesty at one point.

In this context, the president proceeded to discuss in some detail features of his health care, welfare and education reform proposals.

While the Republicans may see them as liberal, Clinton made them sound for all the world like reasonable, middle-of-the-road policies for the reasonable middle-class voters who the DLC vows hold the salvation of the Democratic Party in their hands.

He seemed to be saying, in sum, not to worry about him forgetting where he came from and going liberal.

As a preacher to the DLC choir, Bill Clinton clearly knows the right words and music.

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