Panetta stumbles

August 15, 1994|By Sandy Grady

WASHINGTON — Washington--FOR A NEW chief of staff who made a big deal out of bringing discipline to the White House, Leon Panetta stuck his foot in his mouth.

Walking up the U.S. House steps on his way to lobby Democrats before a pivotal vote on the crime bill, Mr. Panetta made the year's dumbest political wisecrack.

"I'm going in to kick a little ass," he said with a grin.

A couple of hours later, Mr. Panetta's boast blew up in his face like a 10-megaton firecracker.

His boss, Bill Clinton, was spanked hard in his presidency's most stinging embarrassment. Amid bitter rhetoric, the House blocked the $33 billion crime bill by a 225-210 vote.

Make no mistake, this was a galling setback, one that could mark his political weakness and endanger the health bill. Mr. Clinton had worked his heart out, burning up phones to lobby congressfolk. After all, crime was the public's No. 1 concern. How could he lose?

Instead, a grim-faced Mr. Panetta listened while Mr. Clinton, sputtering with anger, lashed out at enemies who humiliated him.

Face flushed and finger jabbing the air, Mr. Clinton damned the loss as "a procedural trick orchestrated by the National Rifle Association and heavily pushed by the Republican leadership."

Asked if it was a personal defeat, Mr. Clinton fumed, "Did I lose tonight? You bet I did -- in the sense I wanted the bill to pass. But what happens to me isn't important. If everybody in America had the security I had, we wouldn't need a crime bill."

So how did Mr. Clinton manage to blow an anti-crime bill that, according to polls, Americans overwhelmingly backed? If fear on the streets is so powerful, why did he fumble a bill loaded with 100,000 cops, death penalties, three-strikes-and-out punishment, assault-weapon ban and more prisons?

In truth, as Mr. Clinton knows, the crime bill was sunk by raw, selfish politics. Much of the impetus came from Republican leaders who sensed big gains in the fall elections: Mug the Prez.

But hard-ball was vicious. The Republican National Committee sent word to 38 Republicans who leaned toward the crime bill that the RNC would withhold their election funds. Only 11 shrugged off the threat.

Yet it was the desertion of 58 Democrats that hurt. Mr. Clinton, his approval ratings in the low 40s, couldn't protect them in their own districts.

Sure, a handful of defectors were members of the Black Caucus who, like Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., disliked the 60 death penalties. "This bill is about death and racism," stormed Mr. Rangel, noting all 11 prisoners on federal death row were black.

But no doubt the NRA, lobbying hard against the ban on 19 assault-style weapons, was the shadowy executioner. Most Democrats who left Clinton in the lurch were from the rural South and West, where the rifle lobbyists preach: They're taking away your shootin' irons.

Is there a silver lining for Mr. Clinton in this dismal thunderstorm?

Sure, he made a fist-waving plea for Congress to call off its recess and bring the crime bill back to life.

But I suspect his hopes of reviving the crime bill are thin stuff. Judiciary Chairman Jack Brooks, D-Texas, said he would try again in 1995 but it is dead for now.

There is a way, though, for Mr. Clinton to snatch some remnant of political triumph from the jaws of defeat: Portraying himself as the people's embattled champion against crime, thwarted by big-buck lobbyists and partisan Republicans.

Bet Mr. Clinton will be flying to cops' conventions to give the NRA and Republicans hell. Don't get mad, get even.

That ploy -- the prez as lonely battler -- worked for Harry Truman in his 1948 comeback.

But after the stunning crime debacle, Mr. Clinton may have stern advice for his loose-tongued chief, Mr. Panetta:

Next time you're in the mood to kick some derriere, Leon, keep it to yourself.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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