Clinton needs to put fear in the hearts of Congress



WASHINGTON -- For any president, fear is a valuable weapon in dealing with Congress.

Senators and representatives tempted to defy an administration their own party have to be persuaded that the man in the White House is capable of taking harsh retaliation against them. Or, alternatively, they must fear he will go over their heads and rally their constituents against them.

The fiasco on the crime bill suggests there is no such weapon in President Clinton's arsenal. And until he develops one, the prospect is for continued defiance from fellow Democrats on many issues, including his central priority, health care reform.

It is a lesson Washington learned early about this president, in the case of Sen. David Boren of Oklahoma. Boren, you may recall, led the howls of protest in early 1993 when Clinton proposed an energy tax -- the so-called Btu (for British thermal units) tax -- as the key revenue measure in his plan to reduce the federal deficit.

The White House yielded to Boren and others from energy-producing states, to the consternation of House VTC Democrats who had already voted for the tax, and replaced it with a small levy on gasoline. But even after that change, Boren voted against the final bill.

More to the point, the Oklahoma Democrat got away with it. There was no visible sign of anger from the president -- let alone the kind of measures a Lyndon B. Johnson might have taken. Nobody burned Boren's barn; no IRS agents showed up on his doorstep.

Nor was Boren the only prominent Democrat to get away with giving the president the back of his hand in an egregiously open way. Another obvious case was Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, who cut the ground from under Clinton on the issue of gays in the military and emerged unscathed. The lesson Washington learned was that you could defy this president with impunity -- that, as the politicians like to say, he could be rolled.

More examples have followed. Even before the budget fight was settled, the president threw a longtime friend, Lani Guinier, over the side rather than try to force approval of her nomination as head of the civil rights division of the Justice Department. Then there was the more recent case of the president's choice of Stephen Breyer for the Supreme Court when a Republican, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, threatened to make a stand against another possible choice, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt.

Clinton's weakness now is compounded by his own polling numbers. His approval rating is down to a new low -- barely 40 percent in some polls, less than that in many states in the South and Far West.

Many Democrats running for re-election are more interested in finding ways to stand apart from the president rather than enlisting his help. The notion of his rallying grass-roots support // seems far-fetched.

It is also true, however, that opinion polls are volatile. And the concern over crime is widespread and deep enough to suggest this is just the kind of issue on which Clinton must try to build a new image as a tough and aggressive party leader willing to use blunt talk rather than, as is his wont, trying to schmooze his way through differences of opinion.

The option, of course, is to try to build a majority for the crime bill by caving in on such questions as the ban on assault weapons that conservative Democrats cited as justification for their defections. But the danger then is that such a strategy would feed the notion that the president can be pushed into reversing himself.

The White House also has something of a balancing act to perform if a crime bill is to be salvaged from the wreckage of the House vote. To yield on assault weapons, for example, would cause new problems with liberals who swallowed the bill despite their misgivings about all the new provisions for the death penalty.

The one saving grace for the administration might be that the vote that scuttled the measure was taken on a procedural question rather than the bill itself. Some Democrats may believe they can use that difference as a rationalization, flimsy though it may be, for reversing themselves down the road.

But the question is whether the Democrats will see any reason to reverse themselves and have to look for a rationalization. At this point, there is nothing for them to fear.

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