Perfectly awesome ineptitude

March 10, 1994|By Russell Baker

ON HEALTH care the Republicans bring to mind an old Leo Durocher story: After watching a rookie infielder make three or four consecutive errors at third base, old pro Durocher steps onto the field, sends the rookie to the sidelines, says, "Let me show you how to play third base, kid."

Next ball bounces down to Durocher, skids off his shins, caroms into the outfield. Durocher turns to the kid and screams, "You've got third base so screwed up nobody can play it!"

On health care the Republicans will apparently have to be satisfied with yelling a similar curse at Bill Clinton, a Democratic president who could have been designed at Republican headquarters, such is his genius for making a mess of the governing game.

By common agreement, the name of that game this year is health care, and Republicans -- with their famous governing experience under Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush -- have 88TC golden opportunity to wave the amateurish Clintons off the field and show the country how real professionals run a government.

With the Clinton bill going down the tubes, you might think the Republicans would now cunningly establish themselves forevermore as the party that delivered the goods while Democrats strutted, blustered and bumbled.

So what do they do? Meet in Bob Dole's office and bicker ineffectually among themselves. Go over to Annapolis, presumably to brace their souls with fresh Chesapeake air, and come away with nothing more inspiring than agreement to pursue their usual policy of making life as wretched as possible for the president.

This doubtless means that in coming weeks we shall hear them repeatedly abusing the rookie Clinton with accusations that he has governing so screwed up that nobody can do it.

The president's people tell you his problem is not ineptitude but a bloodthirsty press, a mean-spirited Republicanism and a touch of bad luck. Maybe so, but the eptitude level is anything but lofty.

What it has done to the prospects for a decent health-care bill has been so damaging that people who want to see progress in this bleak area might sensibly hope everybody would forget the whole thing until another government comes to power.

This is unlikely to happen, alas. Politics now demands something -- anything -- that can be called "a health-care bill," and we probably cannot escape it, nor the perpetuation of the insurance industry's grip on the fate of a nation's liver and lights.

Now of course the Clintons' Whitewater troubles have intervened. Not long ago we all read that Harold Ickes, a can-do New York lawyer, was coming to the White House to save health care. Next time we read about Mr. Ickes, he had been assigned to "damage control" on the Whitewater case.

He is now one of 10 -- 10! -- administration big shots subpoenaed to discuss Whitewater with a grand jury. Which raises another question of eptitude. If health care is, as advertised, the great centerpiece of the Clinton presidency, why bring a can-do guy to Washington to tend to it, then bury him in Whitewater?

Whitewater, of course, is almost incomprehensible to common humanity, and the fact that hardly anyone can understand it makes it a political tar baby the Clintons may never be able to escape.

There was a similar incomprehensible business scandal in the 1950s when Vice President Gore's father, Albert Gore Sr., was a senator from Tennessee. It was called "Dixon-Yates." As with "Whitewater," heavy reporting made it seem sinister stuff.

The senior Senator Gore was against "Dixon-Yates" and found it a political blessing. On a visit home, he once told me, a constituent had approached him saying, "Isn't it just awful about this Dixon-Yates business?" Sure was, said the senator. Whereupon the constituent asked, "What's it all about anyhow?"

With something as confusing as "Whitewater," the Clinton administration might conceivably spend the next three years just trying to explain the thing. (Though it hasn't made much explanatory effort so far.)

The Republicans obviously hope that the nation will remain appalled about this puzzlement and that this will help them rout the rookie Clinton without having to prove Republicans can do better since, on the evidence to date, they can't.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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