Clinton accents positive GOP leadership squirms



WASHINGTON -- Among the most honored axioms in politics is that if you don't define yourself in the most positive terms, your opponent will do it for you -- as negatively as he can. After President Clinton's first year in office, in which he was pilloried by the Republicans for everything from inexperience to ineptitude with allegations of personal misconduct thrown in, he used his State of the Union address to focus on the positive.

With the national microphone before him, he talked exclusively of the successes of his first year: deficit reduction, the North American Free Trade Agreement, new laws providing family leave, easier voter registration, a national service corps, the Brady gun control bill, aid to Russia, and -- whether or not he was responsible for it -- economic recovery. None of the issues that Republicans had been using to question his leadership -- Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia -- got more than perfunctory mention, and the word Whitewater never crossed his lips.

Accordingly, the president was able to portray his first year as a glowing start in what he called a "journey of renewal" for the country. He then characterized this year's agenda, headed by health-care reform and including at least a start on welfare reform, retraining and re-employment programs and an anti-crime package. By inference, he cast the "naysayers" in Congress as men and women lacking confidence in the ability of the American people to achieve these goals.

The political effectiveness of this approach could be seen in the faces of Republican leaders such as House Minority Leader Bob Michel, House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole. Most of the time through the 63-minute speech, they looked as if they had just taken some bad-tasting medicine.

From their point of view, indeed, that was what Clinton was administering to them in the broadest sense. After 12 years of Republican administrations that preached that government was the enemy, this Democrat was advocating it as a prime instrument of change. That, after all, remains the central difference between the two parties. And if Clinton's political strategy dictates that he sell himself as a "new Democrat" who doesn't espouse the old Democratic tax-and-spend formula, the substance of this speech nevertheless reinforced that difference.

Lost in all the debate about what kind of health-care reform is needed is the fact that the Democratic president has forced the Republicans to come forward with alternatives. Some Republican voices, led by former Dan Quayle chief of staff Bill Kristol, continue to argue that only patchwork fixes are needed, and Dole took that position in his television rejoinder to the Clinton speech.

It is highly unlikely, however, that some of the fixes that Dole mentioned -- "guaranteeing uninterrupted coverage to everyone who is currently insured, even if you lose your job, and guaranteeing that your coverage cannot be denied because of a serious illness or pre-existing condition" -- ever would have been embraced by the Republican leadership if Clinton hadn't put sweeping health-care reform on his own agenda. In the end, Dole resorted to the old bugaboo of "socialized medicine" without using the term. "Our country has health-care problems," he said, "but no health-care crisis. But we will have a crisis if we take the president's medicine -- a massive overdose of government control."

The State of the Union address comes once a year, and now the partisan sniping at the president and his agenda, as well as at his personal foibles, will resume. But he has made the most of that high-visibility opportunity to define himself and his proposed policies again in his own terms. To hear him tell it, at least, he is the one who wants to do something about the country's most pressing problems, unlike the two Republican stand-patters who came before him.

For all of Clinton's talk about non-partisan cooperation, it is a posture designed to make the Republicans squirm, and it seemed to be working the other night as they sat somberly in the House chamber listening to him talk repeatedly of government-driven change.

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