Clinton's Worst Enemy

November 11, 1994|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles. -- Did President Clinton's unpopularity bring down the Democratic Congress? Or was it the other way around?

Among those who believe the latter, that Bill Clinton crippled his own presidency by getting too close to Congress, is the feisty (or downright nasty) Republican who will become speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich of Georgia. But he is not the only one. Some of the president's closest advisers believe that the biggest political mistake their man made came even before he took the oath of office.

On November 15, 1992, 12 days after his election, then-Governor Clinton had dinner in Arkansas with the Democratic leaders of the Congress, Speaker of the House Tom Foley, House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.

Over roast beef and potatoes, the three men from Washington persuaded the man from Little Rock that he had to work with them or suffer the fate of Jimmy Carter, who tried to confront Congress and ended up isolated in the White House and then out of a job after four years.

Mr. Clinton bought their line -- hook and sinker, too. He even agreed to abandon two campaign promises: to work to cut the size of congressional staffs, and not to push for a line-item veto of the spending legislation sent down from on high in the Capitol.

The next morning, the president-elect and his new best friends met the press at the Governor's Mansion in Little Rock, where Mr. Clinton declaimed: ''Pennsylvania Avenue will run both ways again. . . . I don't want a continuation of the Cold War between Congress and the White House.''

''Partnership . . . cooperation . . . teamwork'' were the words

used over again. ''No more gridlock'' was another theme.

''Who are all these people?'' Harry Thomason, a successful television producer and non-political old Clinton friend, asked Al From, the founder of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council.

''These are all the people who tried to beat us,'' Mr. From answered.

True. Governor Clinton was the outsider candidate, running against Washington -- which really means running against Congress. Safely elected, and not really knowing anything about Washington, he switched sides. The new-generation president had signed on with the second most disliked institution in the country, with poll approval of about 30 percent, less than half the new president's earliest ratings. (The most disliked, or disapproved, institution in the country is the press, with ratings in the 20 percent range.)

President-elect Clinton, with no Washington experience and a morning-after-the-election-attack of ''What do we do now?'' seized on the congressional leaders as his guides to the mysterious city on the Potomac. He would reap some benefits from that liaison. He has had extraordinary numerical success in getting his own legislation through the House and Senate. He has never had to use his veto power, either, even if a couple of his highest legislative priorities, particularly health care, collapsed in Congress.

But the price for that deal has proved too high. The congressional leadership he embraced was more liberal than the Congress, and Congress itself was more liberal than the American people. The new centrist president-elect -- created in part by Mr. From's ''New Democrat'' council -- had chosen to govern from the left, adopting what came to be known as a ''Democrats only'' strategy.

By the end of his second year in office, Mr. Clinton was, more often than not, facing solidified and disciplined Republican opposition. And his chosen friends, the Democratic leadership, did not have the power to save him from humiliation after humiliation.

Again, there were many who saw this coming, who thought President Clinton would go down with a Congress hated by millions of Americans who did not initially hate him. One was Mr. Gingrich, who after reading of the Little Rock dinner said he would bet a nickel that Mr. Clinton would be a one-term president and that he, little ol' Newt Gingrich from Marietta, Georgia, would become the anti-president, the speaker of the House.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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