October 06, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- An argument can be made that the United States has become ungovernable. Certainly it is not being governed by its president. Real power has leaked out of the Clinton administration. Is this Mr. Clinton's fault, or is he the victim of impersonal forces?

His efforts to get his domestic agenda enacted have systematically been blocked by the Republican minority, in provisional alliances with Clinton opponents within the Democratic Party. Even his crime bill barely passed.

Foreign policy has slipped out of his control. American policy toward both Haiti and North Korea was taken out of his hands by former President Jimmy Carter, who repudiated Mr. Clinton's Haiti policy as something of which he was ''ashamed.'' Mr. Clinton accepted that without a visible flinch.

Haiti policy now seems a daily improvisation by the Defense Department and Lt. Gen. Hugh Shelton, the U.S. commander on the scene. The secretary of state and the national-security adviser, meanwhile, are at odds, with the former on his way out.

Blame for Mr. Clinton's frustration ordinarily is assigned, by his friends, to a partisan and bloody-minded Congress, and an irresponsible press. This is true, up to a point. Congress certainly is obstructive and short-sightedly partisan to an extent not seen since the Second World War.

Mainstream press and broadcasting also have been crueler to Mr. Clinton, for more frivolous reasons, than to any of his postwar predecessors.

The current Harper's magazine carries a devastating account of the New York Times' inflation of the Whitewater affair. The New Yorker has just dropped a Washington correspondent sympathetic to the Clinton cause for a new man, Michael Kelly, whose ''tough love'' for the Clintons is something I should think the Clintons would prefer to be without. (''Tough love'' is an expression employed by the new editorial-page editor of the Times, Howell Raines, to describe how others might view his newspaper's hostility to the Clintons.)

The feeling is common in Congress and among the Washington press that the Clintons and their friends from Little Rock are getting what they deserve for having assumed (as one experienced senatorial campaign manager said to me last week) that because they were ''the smartest people in Little Rock,'' they could ignore the advice of the smartest people in Washington. The smartest people in Washington didn't like that and have taken their revenge.

Mr. Clinton also has created his own difficulties by an unwillingness to govern. He talks too much, constantly consulting press and polls on what he might or might not do, in what the Harvard scholar Stanley Hoffmann two years ago described as ''an endless academic seminar which never comes to a conclusion.'' This has robbed Mr. Clinton of the authority of his office. A president is supposed to announce policy, not talk it over with reporters.

This trifling with decisions also contributes to his loss of priorities. The president could probably have had GATT ratification earlier this year had he put his mind to it. His Senate friends warned him of mounting danger, but he did not act on the GATT problem until the summer had ended, which allowed the enemies of tariff reform to prepare their defense and counterattack. Now there has to be a special Senate session to deal with the bill, and GATT might not pass -- which would leave the United States, for years the great advocate of international tariff reform, as the government that in the end rejects it.

However, Mr. Clinton is also the victim of two characteristics of American society that steadily have weakened its capacity to deal with its problems. The constitutionally installed division of government powers, together with the country's adversarial legal system, have in recent years made it extremely difficult for the executive branch at any level of government to get a decision made and installed.

Not only must legislative opposition be overcome, at a time when there is virtually no party discipline, but a variety of interest-group challenges have to be overcome, and these today come in unprecedented numbers and virulence. One reason the Clinton proposal for health-insurance reform failed this year is that it was too complicated. The reason it was so complicated was that its drafters had attempted to appease the interest groups in advance.

The pain and costs of getting anything done in American government now are very high -- much higher than in cabinet-style governments abroad, or in societies with non-adversarial legal systems. These costs were not so high in the past because a large national consensus existed on national priorities, above all during the world wars and early Cold War years.

That consensus has been absent for most of the period since the 1960s. Democracy no doubt is all about disagreement and the assertion of individual or group rights (or what are claimed as rights but are often claims to privilege; a right is a ''moral property'' to which one has a just claim). The price that must be paid is today's very high coefficient of ''friction'' in American public life (and the economy), culminating in ungovernability.

This contributes to public alienation from the political process, which is higher today than it has ever been. Demonstration of that is the fact that congressional candidates now all present themselves as enemies of ''Washington.'' American rates of political participation and voting are very low and going down. They are lower than in any other modern democracy. This certainly is not what democracy is all about.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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