Maybe Clinton Is Too Nice to Fight

August 26, 1994|By CLARENCE PAGE

Washington -- Is Bill Clinton mean enough? With all the problems President Clinton has been facing lately in public opinion polls and with his anti-crime legislation and health-care reform on Capitol Hill, one wonders whether he may be too nice a guy to finish first.

These are the days of vocal violence in political discourse. It is the age of Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern and ''The McLaughlin Group.''

It is an age in which being right quite often is less important than sounding tough on somebody, whether it is criminals, unwed mothers, illegal immigrants or, for good measure, criminal, unwed, illegal immigrant mothers.

An aide to a Southern senator recently told a Capitol Hill reporter that Mr. Clinton's argument for health care probably has entirely too positive a spin to appeal to the folks back home.

The president constantly pitches for ''health care that is always there'' for everyone, including those who lack coverage or fear losing it, the aide said.

Forget that. Instead, the aide suggested, Mr. Clinton should ball up his fist, stick out his lantern jaw in a get-tough stance and pound the podium against the deadbeats and chiselers who ''fail to live up to their responsibility'' to buy health insurance, leaving it up to other hard-working Americans to pick up the tab.

Does this pitch have a familiar ring? Yes, it's the politics of resentment, back for a return visit after successfully boosting the Democrats to a return engagement in the White House.

Let's not forget how a taste of the politics of resentment helped Pennsylvania's Harris Wofford put health care in the headlines and make it a winning issue in his 1991 Senate race. That race revived the beaten and battered Democratic Party's hopes for 1992 and made health care the nation's No. 2 issue, second only to the economy.

Let us not forget that it wasn't just the cost and unreliability of health coverage that excited Pennsylvania voters. It was also the very idea that they might be getting ripped off, while others who were less deserving and less hard working were getting off scot-free.

''If every criminal deserves to have a lawyer, why can't every working person deserve to have a doctor?'' Mr. Wofford said on the campaign trail.

Why not, indeed? It was an effective line on at least three counts: First, it has a ring of fairness to working people. Second, it has a ring of condemnation for criminals. And, third, it links criminals to lawyers in the same sentence, which is where quite a few non-lawyer Americans think they belong.

Such rhetorical touchstones are the very heartbeat of modern populism, a political word that means ''of the people'' and has come to describe just about any political pitch that makes large bodies of voters say to themselves that ''he (or she) sounds like me.''

Another crowd pleaser: ''I'm the kind of Democrat who wants to put people on welfare back to work.''

Sure, who doesn't? Even so, it was important for Mr. Wofford to say it, since Republicans had persuaded critical numbers of swing voters that Democrats only wanted to pick their pockets ** and give the money to nameless, faceless and, therefore, undeserving poor folks.

Significantly, Mr. Wofford's chief campaign adviser was one Jim Carville, the ''ragin' Cajun'' who later guided Bill Clinton's campaign to the White House, helped along by a succession of resentment-tweaking phrases like ''the forgotten middle class'' and ''Americans who work hard and play by the rules.''

The politics of resentment basically goes like this: When all else fails, find somebody for voters to get mad at. It received a big boost in the late 1960s, when Pat Buchanan and others helped Richard Nixon shape his ''Southern strategy'' to win over conservative white masses in the South and in urban ethnic neighborhoods of the North.

Nixon whipped voters into a lather over ''crime in the streets'' before he moved it into the suites.

Ronald Reagan beat up ''welfare queens.'' George Bush's supporters had Willie Horton.

Hillary Rodham Clinton's political instincts seemed to be guiding her in this direction when she made early targets of the American Medical Association and insurance companies. After all, most people tend to like their own doctor but distrust the AMA. And as for insurance companies, well, you might as well try to say a few nice words about Congress.

But her attack-dog strategy whimpered like an attack puppy compared to the counter-assault insurance companies and health lobbyists launched on Capitol Hill and in television commercials.

Besides, as one newsmagazine quoted a White House adviser as saying, ''It should be (the president's) fight.''

But is this president too nice to fight? The Clintons lost control of their health-care message months ago, partly because of an ineffective sales job.

A very telling Wall Street Journal poll last spring found that, when asked their feelings on the Clinton plan, most people opposed it. But when the plan was described to them without the Clinton name attached, most favored it. No wonder the Clinton plan died and, as last week's debate dragged on, many feared the same fate for Sen. George Mitchell's Clinton-approved alternative.

Maybe the Clintons are simply too nice for today's macho-tough, heavy-testosterone politics. Maybe it's not enough to promise to help people get well. Maybe you also have to promise to make somebody else sick.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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