Rather Be Right or Be Effective?

June 21, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston.--Every once in a while, I figure that there must be an internet connecting every password-carrying member of the political establishment. When something happens, they all log on to Soundbites On-Line and pass around the same tidbits, or tidbites if you prefer.

This time the subject was welfare reform. No sooner had the outlines of the Clinton plan been announced last week than we got the party line.

''Hopelessly weak'' said Rep. Bob Michel. ''Limp'' said Sen. Phil Gramm. ''Marginal tinkering,'' said former drug czar Bill Bennett. The Soundbite Meister himself, Rep. Newt Gingrich said, ''The president is brilliant at describing a Ferrari, but his staff continues to produce a Yugo.''

What was absent from this user-group was the admission that none of these conservatives would have supported any Ferrari program. Indeed most of those on the right talk about taking the wheels off welfare altogether.

But the collective way to attack President Clinton these days is on his reputation as a compromiser. Not a great compromiser, but a weak, limp, tinkering one.

The very people who oppose his principles are criticizing him for not sticking to those principles. The people who are horrified at the prospect of any incremental change now self-righteously proclaim that his administration's central flaw is that it backs away from ''fundamental'' change.

This common wisdom gets passed along the internet. It pops out in the common-wisdom books like Bob Woodward's ''The Agenda.'' It gets repeated in the common-wisdom talk shows.

I am aware that we didn't get this rap on the president without some help from the president. The man from Arkansas is more at home mediating than polarizing. It's part of his appeal as well as his problem.

During the campaign, we saw a man who deeply believed that if he could just keep talking to people long enough, he could get them to agree with each other and with him. It's one reason he was hoarse all the time. It's also one reason he was elected. The image that comes closest to that self-image is the Rose Garden photograph of President Clinton with Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shaking hands.

There is a real desire to stake out common ground in this country. Mr. Clinton regularly reflects and appeals to that desire when he talks about values. He's on shared territory when he talks about work not welfare, or about the belief that no one should go without health care.

But in the process of turning principles into policies, it's always hard to tell when the search for common ground requires a skill at making compromises and when you risk being compromised.

In the only line -- I promise -- I will ever quote from est training, the founding guru asked, ''Would you rather be right or would you rather have your life work?'' Being right isn't important if you're arguing over how to fold the laundry. It is when you're arguing about principles.

The political equivalent of the est-question is: Would you rather be right or would you rather your bill passed? Would you rather go down in righteous flames or make a compromise? When is it better to be a loser than a collaborator? The answers are not at all self-evident.

Sometimes, Mr. Clinton has been guilty of what I would call premature evacuation. He has retreated from stands before he was forced to. But this president is savvy about politics as the art of the possible and has a pretty decent grip on what's possible.

He may know that Americans agree in progressive principle but less so in fact. They may like the idea of fundamental change, but get nervous when they see the blueprints or the bills. It's not the devil that is in the details. The defectors are in the details.

But remember that it's the crowd from Soundbites On-Line who oppose Mr. Clinton in Congress and sow doubts in the public mind. They force the administration to compromise. Then they call it a presidential character flaw.

Maybe this is the beauty of an interactive system. You can have it both ways. Try to get that out on the internet.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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