Election debacle signals Clinton to reinvent himself ELECTION 1994

November 13, 1994|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- And now, reinventing Clinton.

After his party's worst midterm election defeat in nearly a half-century, President Clinton is being forced to do the same thing he often tells Americans they must do in a fast-changing world: retool and retrain for a different job than the one he currently holds.

It won't be easy.

Mr. Clinton came to office as head of a unified government in Washington, the first in 12 years with Congress and the White House controlled by the same party. Now, with power about to be split again, he must perform a task no Democrat since Harry S. Truman has had to do -- try to win re-election while leading a divided government.

"A lot has changed," Mr. Clinton conceded last week.

Over the next two years, he is likely to use the veto,something he has never done before. And the administration is already searching for executive actions Mr. Clinton can take that don't require congressional approval.

Like other presidents who found themselves stymied politically at home, Mr. Clinton, now on a long-planned nine-day trip to Asia, may elect to become more of a foreign policy president. Among the topics that could engage his attention abroad in the months ahead: the Middle East peace process and reform in the former Soviet Union.

Vice President Al Gore, who has escaped much of the anger and political blame directed at Mr. Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is likely to assume a more prominent role. So, too, are Mr. Gore's efforts at "reinventing government" -- cutting the size of the federal work force and streamlining the bureaucracy -- which are thought to appeal to the disaffected '92 Ross Perot voters, who hold the balance of power in U.S. politics today.

Also on the horizon: shake-ups in the White House staff and, quite possibly, the Cabinet as well, according to administration aides.

But beyond that, White House officials, trying to get over the shock of last week's election, are debating precisely how Mr. Clinton should proceed over the rest of his term.

"We have to be honest. We should all admit that we don't know," said George Stephanopoulos, a Clinton adviser. "I don't think any kind of final decision has been made."

Cooperate or confront?

At the heart of the debate is the extent to which Mr. Clinton should try to work with the conservative Republican majority in ,, Congress vs. when and how to confront them.

Simply coming to grips with being the minority party in Washington is likely to be a tough chore for the Democrats, after 40 years of having their own way in one or both houses of Congress.

Mr. Clinton was clearly chastened by an election that many people saw as a repudiation of his leadership and his legislative agenda. Before leaving the country Friday, he engaged in an almost public struggle to cope with this rejection, by delivering a somewhat rambling analysis of the election at a news conference Wednesday and a more coherent version in a speech the next day.

Mr. Clinton revealed that, on the morning after last week's election, he pulled out a copy of his 1991 announcement speech, apparently searching it for clues to where he might have gone wrong. One theme of that speech, he noted, was that the government needs to provide more opportunity for Americans, and, in return, should insist on more responsibility from them.

"They don't think we've done that yet," Mr. Clinton acknowledged.

Perhaps the most memorable line of that 1991 speech was candidate Clinton's pledge to "fight for the forgotten middle class," those who were struggling to make ends meet and keep their families safe under Republican administrations.

Last week, many in middle America seemed to be saying that Mr. Clinton had become the one who was forgetting them now. According to exit polls, the voters flunked congressional Democrats, and by extension Mr. Clinton, for their mishandling of the most basic middle-class concerns -- pocketbook issues of taxes and jobs and economic growth.

And in one of the clearest signals of all to the president, a national survey taken after the election found that most Americans think Mr. Clinton now should revise his original agenda. By a margin of more than 2-to-1, the public said Mr. Clinton should compromise with the new Republican Congress, rather than follow through on his original promises, according to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

His critics say Mr. Clinton campaigned as a new Democrat but failed to govern as one. Many of his most highly publicized initiatives, they point out, look like those of an old-fashioned liberal.

In what seemed to be a tacit acknowledgment that he must now change course, Mr. Clinton spoke of his agenda in the past tense last week, telling an audience at his alma mater, Georgetown University, "I do believe that we were moving in the right direction."

Then he pledged, "with all my strength," to "work to pursue the new Democrat agenda."

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