Clinton reversals call campaigns into question



WASHINGTON -- No one is going to be shocked when President Clinton decides to abandon his tough rhetoric of 1992 and find a way to continue most-favored-nation (MFN) trade privileges for China. The signals from the administration have been unmistakable.

Moreover, there is a valid case that can be made for such a reversal. The economic stakes in a trade relationship with China are enormous for both sides. And anyone who is realistic about the regime in China understands that trying to impose U.S. ideas about human rights on the Chinese is a bootless exercise.

It may even be argued -- although this is a bit of a stretch -- that more progress on human rights can be achieved through long-term economic relationships between China and the rest of the world. Surely there is plenty of room for improvement in a regime that still routinely jails dissidents and uses prison labor to compete in world markets.

But, whatever the justification, there is still a price to be paid by Clinton. Once again he is providing evidence that all his big talk on foreign policy during the 1992 campaign has been put aside in the name of pragmatism now that he is in power to do something rather than just offer that big talk.

The same thing has happened on policies toward Bosnia and Haiti. The president has ended up following policies essentially indistinguishable from those of George Bush in their fundamental tenets.

In the case of China, the Republican president was particularly vulnerable. He had responded to the disaster at Tiananmen Square by kowtowing to the Chinese leaders, secretly sending emissaries to meet with them when the smoke had scarcely had time to settle and insisting that as a former ambassador to Beijing he had a special insight into those people.

But the events at Tiananmen Square had evoked a strong reaction among Americans -- and other people all over the world -- who watched that young man defy the tanks and who watched the dissidents being brutally crushed both literally and figuratively. So Bush's pragmatism caused a predictable backlash among voters of all ideological stripes, and Clinton unsurprisingly tried to exploit that anger during the 1992 campaign.

To Democratic liberals, the posture of candidate Clinton was seen as evidence that this "new Democrat" was sensitive to the importance of the human rights issue even if he might not be totally in tune with them on other questions. Now the president is rTC saying that the human rights question is still important but not necessarily controlling and most people seem inclined to agree.

But Clinton's reversal of position on all these foreign policy issues raises a more basic question about U.S. politics -- that is, whether there is any connection between what happens during a presidential election campaign and what a president does once he has taken office.

The evidence provided so far by this president seems to say that there is no such connection. Clinton has reversed himself on a list of issues, including the infamous middle-class tax cut promise he threw over the side once faced with the realities of running the government.

The problem is that this pattern is just the kind of thing that breeds so much alienation in the electorate. It is the reason that one voter in five voted for Ross Perot in 1992 although many of those same voters had serious reservations about whether the independent from Texas had the temperament to serve in the White House. It is also the reason there continue to be many reservations about Clinton that are evident in one opinion poll after another.

No one imagines that the results of the 1992 campaign were affected in any major way by Clinton's posture on China, Bosnia or Haiti. George Bush continued to get strong marks for foreign policy during that campaign, but those issues were essentially irrelevant in a year in which the dominant factors were the concern over the economy and the failure of his administration to recognize that concern.

But the perception of candidate Clinton was, nonetheless, based in some measure on his strong criticism of Bush on such questions as whether those Haitian refugees should be allowed into the country and whether the Chinese should pay a price for Tiananmen Square.

Clinton himself may not pay any direct price for caving in on MFN status for China. But it is the kind of thing that makes Americans wonder about whether campaigns matter.

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