Clinton's town meetings carry underlying risks



WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, in his public hunt for health care reform through open town meetings, is learning the wisdom of the old hunters' adage: Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you.

The president as a candidate in 1992 was extremely well served by the town meeting format -- opening himself to questions by ordinary Americans and then bowling them over with his impressive grasp of facts and figures. So it was natural that he would use the device extensively to sell his agenda once he gained the White House.

In his latest round of town hall meetings from Charlotte, N.C., Kansas City, Mo., and Minneapolis, however, he encountered some crisp -- some would say disrespectful -- questioning not only about health care but also about the Whitewater affair and his use of Air Force One to tool around to the NCAA basketball championships.

In the open town hall format, there is always the risk that a questioner will throw a curve ball to embarrass the president or even toss an insult his way. In Charlotte, a woman told him pointedly that "many of us are having a hard time with your credibility" and asked: "How can you earn back our trust?" Later, after he defended his wife's highly profitable cattle commodities trading, the woman confronted him with: "Are you really one of us middle-class people or are you in with the villainous, money-grabbing Republicans?"

A caller from Austin, Texas, just as pointedly wanted to know "why should we believe you on Whitewater" when the president, he said, had not fulfilled campaign pledges on a middle-class income tax cut and tougher policies toward Haiti and Bosnia. And when Clinton tried the old device of trying to turn aside another man's tough question on the economy with a question of his own, the questioner bluntly told the president that he was the one supposed to be asking questions and the president the one supposed to answer.

All this suggests that Clinton, in his wide accessibility to average Americans in such town meetings, as well as on television talk shows, may be devaluing the prestige of the presidency and the aura that has almost always surrounded it. Seldom have average voters ever given a previous president the kind of lip that Clinton got on occasion during his latest series of town meetings.

Clinton's fondness for the format is not hard to fathom. In the 1992 campaign, beleaguered by news media questions about alleged womanizing and draft-dodging, he found that end-running the press by going directly to the voters was a most effective political tactic. At that stage, questioners in such meetings by and large would ask him general policy questions he had been asked many times before, and he would routinely knock them out of the park.

The town meeting format used in his debate with President George Bush and Ross Perot in Richmond was pure gold for Clinton. Two questioners put Bush on the spot by calling for an end to campaign mud-slinging and a focus on issues of concern to voters, at the time Bush was trying to keep the draft issue alive. Another made Bush squirm by asking the millionaire president how the recession was affecting him personally. Clinton hit a home run on that one too.

This latest round of town meetings was clearly an attempt to focus public attention away from Whitewater and onto health care again. But that didn't stop some questioners from asking about Whitewater, as well as some other issues that the president obviously would have preferred not come up. Nevertheless, Clinton remains his best salesman for his legislative agenda, and if he can take the knocks that come along with the risk inherent in the town meeting format, it's probably wise that he continue to employ it.

When all is said and done, the presidency remains a platform for shaping public opinion unlike any other in our political system. Had George Bush in 1991 gone out and leveled with the American people about the state of the economy, and had he demonstrated in the process that he cared about their concerns, he might still be in the Oval Office today. Instead, Bill Clinton has the ear of the electorate, and is doggedly making the most of it.

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