Clinton's desire for office may hurt his credibility



WASHINGTON -- Amid all the maneuvering over the crime and health care bills, the political fate of President Clinton has been a source of growing partisan, press and public speculation. Will defeat on either or both bills bury his chances for a second term? Are the Republicans opposing him primarily to achieve this end? Are Democrats who are not aligned with him on this legislation under pressure to "save" his presidency, as fence-straddlers on his deficit reduction package were last year?

These questions would not be asked now if the president were riding as high in the public opinion polls as might be expected in a period of relatively good economic conditions after the recession that helped drive George Bush from the Oval Office. But he is not, and indeed his political image seems to be so weak right now that Democratic allies take pains to say that a modification of legislation they are trying to rescue for him is "not a Clinton bill."

That attitude underscores the fact that the president as a person is more chastised than his proposals, which generally rate high in the polls. Provisions in the crime bill such as the ban on assault weapons and three-strikes-and-out sentencing, and universal coverage in health care, all get strong public support -- provided Clinton's name is not attached.

No matter how often the president insists that it is not his political future that matters in passing crime and health care measures, his ardor for the presidency has been so obvious that disclaiming personal political interest in legislative success has little credibility.

One recent president, Lyndon Johnson, had similar ardor for the office and shocked the nation in 1968 by announcing he would not seek a second term, in order to remove politics from his efforts to end the war in Vietnam. Expecting Clinton to follow suit to make himself more credible on the issues he cares most about would be entirely unrealistic, although the polls strongly suggest that he may well wind up a one-term president anyway.

Still, as long as many Americans have the impression that Clinton wants a second term so much that he will compromise at every turn, and that therefore his word doesn't mean all it should, he will lack the credibility any president needs to make his word stand up. His State of the Union threat to veto any health care bill that does not provide coverage "for every American" has already been eroded by declared support of the House and Senate Democratic bills that merely propose to move toward covering everybody sometime.

What this president needs at this point, while making clear he does want a second term, is to conduct himself through the remainder of this term as if what is most important to him is to achieve those of his goals that he can get before facing the voters again in 1996.

In the jolt he sustained when the House voted last week against taking up his crime bill, Clinton demonstrated a fighting resolve that has been all too rare in his presidency, albeit directed disproportionately against the Republicans who voted against him and largely giving a pass to the 58 fellow Democrats who joined them.

Since then, however, apparently having failed to nudge the Republicans, Clinton has begun to sound more conciliatory toward the Republicans, at least through aides, causing many liberal Democrats to worry that he will swallow legislation so watered down as to render it unacceptable to them.

At risk in all this is Clinton coming off once more with an image of weak leadership, in part because accommodation can easily be read as an inordinate desire to survive politically. Bill Clinton might be better served this once to take a strong, firm stand on what he wants, to fight all-out for it and go down to defeat fighting, if it comes to that.

One of the great appeals of the current term-limitation craze is the argument that those who back it are more interested in achieving something in a limited time than in perpetuating themselves in office. If Clinton somehow could convey that same sense by his actions without renouncing his ambition for a second term, his chances of achieving it might well be enhanced.

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