Democrats need a prayer to survive inept Clinton


WASHINGTON -- Whatever the merits of the prayer issue, President Clinton may have retired the cup for political ineptitude by sending his signal from Jakarta that he may be ready to go along with some kind of "voluntary" prayer in the public schools.

At the most elementary level, the picture he projected was one of an embattled president caving in to Newt Gingrich and the conservative Republicans even before he was pushed -- thus reinforcing the reputation he has built in the last two years as a politician who can be rolled and a leader entirely too anxious to please.

The extra dimension of political clumsiness in this case is that Clinton has offended the heart of his party's base. The voters who care most about keeping prayer out of the schools are the liberals who see prayer in the schools as a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state, which is precisely what the Supreme Court ruled in 1962.

Moreover, at the core of that liberal base are Jewish voters who have always been most sensitive to church-state questions for obvious reasons. And these Jewish voters, according to the exit polls, gave more than 80 percent of their votes to Democrats in the midterm elections last week, making them second only to black voters in their demonstration of party loyalty.

So the message is that the "reward" from the White House for loyalty to the party is a kick in the teeth.

The political damage to Clinton is not limited to liberals or Jews, however. The alacrity with which he found common ground on such a touchy issue can be read as the crassest kind of political attempt to reassure culturally conservative whites, particularly in the South, who voted Republican in such huge numbers last week.

Or it can be seen within the political community as fresh evidence of his weakness as a leader. Neither is the kind of signal the White House should be sending when it is trying to establish a new relationship with the Republicans who now will control Congress.

Clinton made an entirely characteristic attempt to offer an elaborate rationale for his position. "I have always supported voluntary prayer in the schools," he told reporters in Jakarta. "I have always thought that the question was: When does voluntary prayer really become coercive to people who have different religious views from those who are in the majority in any particular classroom?"

That, of course, is precisely the point that the Supreme Court made in 1962 when Justice Hugo Black wrote that even voluntary prayer could have an "indirect coercive effect upon religious minorities." So you have to wonder, what has changed to suggest it might be less coercive today?

Or you have to wonder, why is this light bulb going off in Clinton's head right now? The answer might be that this is an issue to which Gingrich, the new arbiter of American values, has assigned the highest priority by calling voluntary prayer "the core of being American."

The president did not make any hard commitment, saying only that, "I certainly wouldn't rule it out," and promising to look at the specific proposals. But it is clear that once again Clinton is trying to find some common ground with those who scorn him.

"What I think the country needs and what I think the schools need," he said, "is a sense that there are certain basic values of citizenship, including valuing the right of people to have and express their faith, which can be advocated without crossing the line of separation of church and state and without undermining in any way the fabric of our society."

Nobody is going to argue with those sentiments. But what is involved here is quite different -- an issue loaded with symbolic and emotional content for many Americans and an issue that cannot be simply talked out as the president likes to do.

In the end, you have to wonder why the president chose to discuss the topic at all in a news conference in Jakarta when he might well have deferred such questions until his trip had ended and he was dealing with the new realities of Republican control of Congress. And then you have to wonder if this is an indicator of how he plans to confront Newt Gingrich and his allies in Congress. If it is, Clinton is going to be left with a very small base in the Democratic Party.

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