Ghost of Jimmy Carter remains in White House

ON POLITICS

May 17, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Just 16 years ago, at precisely this point in his first term, President Jimmy Carter's advisers began to demonstrate their uneasiness about his political vulnerability. New professionals were added to the White House staff, and Carter began a calculated campaign to convince columnists and television anchors that the concerns about him inside the Beltway were exaggerated.

The fear among advisers to that Democratic president was that the perception within the political community of Carter as ineffectual would begin to -- as poll-taker Patrick Caddell phrased it at the time -- "ripple out to the rest of the country."

This bit of political history should be instructive for President Clinton and his advisers. Although his perception problem is different from that suffered by Carter, there are striking parallels in the concern among Democratic insiders about Clinton's political vulnerability and at the same point in the political cycle.

Clinton's problem is that, not to put too fine a point on it, he is viewed as a president who can be rolled -- meaning one who will cave in to opposition rather than fight it out.

And that image has been clearly sharpened among political professionals by the decision to choose Stephen G. Breyer for the Supreme Court rather than Interior Secretary Bruce E. Babbitt in the face of threats of opposition from Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and other hard-line conservatives.

Thus, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, another Judiciary Committee member, was saying aloud what many Democrats are saying privately when he said on one of the weekend television interview programs that Clinton "sometimes can be pushed and pulled by political considerations" and added that "you have to stand up every so often and say, 'Look, this is what I'm going to do.' "

The perception of Clinton as too willing to fold began in the late stages of his transition period when the president abandoned a plan to make Chicago lawyer William Daley secretary of transportation and gave the job instead to Federico F. Pena because of demands from Hispanic- American leaders for more high-level appointments.

The perception was reinforced when the president abandoned an old friend, Lani Guinier, whom he had chosen to head the Justice Department's civil rights division, be- cause of controversy over some of her writing as an academic. After the fact, both Republicans and Democrats on the Judiciary Committee said Guinier could have been confirmed if Clinton had been willing to make the fight.

The president has shown similar, shall we say, flexibility oissues. Thus, for example, he made still another reversal of policy on the Haitian refugee question earlier this month after Randall Robinson, the leading advocate for the Haitians, went on a hunger strike and black leaders in Congress began to press ever more aggressively for action. Clinton insisted the policy had not been changed, but it clearly looked that way to the naked eye.

Up to this point, most of the discussion of how easily Clinton cabe rolled has been conducted among insiders here for whom such speculation is a constant of daily life. But, as Pat Caddell foresaw in Jimmy Carter's case, these perceptions do have a way of rippling out to the electorate at large.

The political danger then lies in the possibility of some particulacase crystallizing the view that the president is too weak for the job -- just as the Iran hostage crisis and Carter's inability to resolve it crystallized the picture of him as ineffectual during the early stages of the 1980 campaign he subsequently lost to Ronald Reagan.

It would be imprudent, if not downright rash, to conclude in Ma1994 that Clinton is going to be vulnerable in November 1996. There are many turns in the road ahead, many decisions to be made and, not incidentally, many new opportunities for the president to say, "Look, this is what I'm going to do." And, should he seize such an opportunity, Clinton may look as tough as Lyndon B. Johnson by the next election campaign.

At the moment, nonetheless, the decision to let Orrin Hatch bluff him out of Bruce Babbitt is causing a little uneasiness among Democrats with long memories.

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