Clinton makes a good case, but can anyone hear him?



McLEAN, Va. -- As the crowd at a $30-a-ticket reception for Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb awaited his arrival and that of his featured guest the other night, somebody on the speakers' platform suddenly held up a very small printed placard that read: "Clinton." The crowd cheered, briefly.

That little hand-held sign and the presence of Secret Service agents were the only hints that the president of the United States was about to enter the hotel ballroom. And when he and Robb strode onto the platform to lustier cheers, the two men made no effort to give photographers the customary victory gesture of hands joined and thrust overhead -- "the armpit shot," in the crude vernacular of the political pros.

It all seemed to reflect the conventional wisdom of the midterm election campaign -- that a visit from President Clinton is at best a gamble for Democratic incumbents like Robb, except at a fund-raiser. In this and another event on the same night, Clinton helped raise $500,000 for Robb in his campaign against well-heeled Republican nominee Oliver North.

But on this night at least, Clinton offered up considerably more than financial aid. In urging Robb's re-election, the president delivered a defense of his own beleaguered administration that for once accentuated the positive.

After 20 months in office, he said, "look at the record. We have made a good beginning." He ticked off his major achievements -- "the biggest deficit reduction package in history"; an income tax increase "only on the top 1.2 percent of our people"; 90 percent of small businesses eligible for a tax cut; "reduced taxes on 15 million working families . . . increased investment in education and training, new technologies and defense conversion"; "expanded trade more than in any comparable period in 35 years . . . 4.3 million new jobs . . . reduced the size of the federal government by 70,000."

Clinton, to be sure, did his share of Republican-bashing, charging the opposition with "exalting fear over hope, by exalting blame over responsibility and by exalting division over unity." But he also presented a coherent description of his political motivations and achievements that more often than not have been lost in the two-sided babble over gridlock in Washington.

Clinton himself could not resist joining that babble even as he sought to tell his Virginia audience that his administration had made a good start. He told of how the Republicans had declined to give him a single vote for deficit reduction and it passed anyway. He charged that Senate Republicans voted 42-2 last year to pass a crime bill that included a ban on assault weapons only because "they didn't believe the House would pass it," then voted against it this year when the bill came back to them from the House. And he charged them with killing health care reform. He made no mention of the fact that Republican votes bailed him out on approval of NAFTA.

When he ran in 1992, Clinton said, he was convinced the nation could solve its most serious problems "if only we had the courage, the wisdom and the good old common sense to line up our problems and take them on one at a time." After the election, he said, he had "grand dreams" that this approach could be adopted in a spirit of bipartisanship, but that he was wrong. (Republicans, to be sure, will argue that Clinton has displayed none of the above requisites.)

In 12 years of Republican presidents, he said, they "railed about the deficit and quadrupled the debt," and "every single issue was talk. We've been here 20 months, folks, and the Republicans are saying, 'Well, if your problems aren't solved, it's just because the aliens have taken over Washington.' "

Citing the Republicans' recent "contract" to return government to conservative principles if they win control of the House, he said it meant a return to "trickle-down economics" that "will take us right down the road we were on before."

For all the Republican-bashing, however, Clinton did make a case for his "good beginning." But because he did it at length, little of it made the television news shows that provide only the most combative snippets. Most reports, on television and in print, featured the fact that Robb had had the "courage" to invite an unpopular president. That is Clinton's challenge: to get his case for a "good beginning" out beyond the "sound bites" and through the clutter of criticism of his leadership -- and not all of it from Republicans, either.

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