A dilemma for Clinton fight GOP or scale back


WASHINGTON -- For all of President Clinton's efforts to make the best of the midterm election disaster that has hit him and his Democratic Party, he is faced now not only with the problem of salvaging any substantial semblance of his legislative agenda but also with the task of reviving his personal political prospects for re-election in 1996.

Clinton's talk of cooperation with the first Republican-controlled Congress in four decades reflects more hope than an appreciation of the political reality.

The GOP, coming in out of the wilderness after so long, is already gearing up to press its own agenda on a beleaguered president of the opposition party.

He obviously must scale back his ambitious health care reform plans of this year to the features that most congressional Republicans have already said they will buy, most notably portability of insurance coverage and coverage for pre-existing conditions.

But the notion of universal coverage as he first introduced it is out the window, as are his most ambitious proposals for welfare reform.

The Republicans, having made specific pledges in their "Contract With America" to bring to a speedy vote long-stymied proposals of their own, including a balanced-budget constitutional amendment, the line-item veto and term limits, can be counted on to fulfill those pledges or jeopardize the credibility with the voters they won on Tuesday.

This prospect will confront the president with the need to decide whether after two years of never using his legislative veto power to invoke it -- at the risk of incurring the same charges of obstructionism he laid on the Republicans this fall. Those charges didn't stem the GOP election tide, but used against him by Republicans so overwhelmingly elected by voters fed up with gridlock, they could dig an even deeper political hole for him.

Clinton's problems are not merely the presence of a Republican congressional majority, either. His own party has a serious dichotomy between old liberals who see him as too accommodating to conservatives and conservatives who paint him as a liberal.

His efforts to cast himself as a middle-road "New Democrat" have foundered, and any further move to the right to assuage the newly powerful Republicans will alienate even more the liberals who remain an important base in the party.

Just as Southern and other conservative Democrats fell in with Re- publicans to form the "boll weevil" coalition that gave President Ronald Reagan his earliest legislative victories in 1981, they can be counted on to do the same over the next two years in opposition to their own president unless he adopts a more modest domestic agenda.

The president's weakness in the South and West is partly but not entirely personal. Both regions are becoming increasingly identified with the Republican Party, as clearly demonstrated in the midterm results, imperiling his re-election chances.

It is clear from all this that a major overhaul of the Democratic Party is needed if it is to retain the White House in 1996, behind Clinton or someone else.

Its image as the promoter of activist government, even in the "New Democratic" trappings of Bill Clinton, has been emphatically rejected by the voters.

He got little or no credit for the country's economic recovery or much of anything else in an election that was much more anti-Democratic and anti-Clinton than anti-incumbent, since all Republican incumbents in the House and Senate survived.

Only two years ago, Clinton and the Democrats were joyously driving what they thought was the last nail in the coffin of Reaganism, in their defeat of George Bush.

Now, the basic conservative approach of less government, less taxes, more defense spending and somehow a balanced budget has been resurrected, and it is Clinton and the Democratic Party who are hearing the political last rites pronounced over them.

For the president and his party, it is an unpromising dilemma -- to trim their sails in the hope of bipartisanship with an opposition that now holds the high cards, or to dig in and buck that opposition, with the hope that voters who have already repudiated Clinton and the Democrats will somehow regain their faith in the activist government they represent.

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