Changed capital poses new challenges for Clinton

November 21, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton arrived home yesterday to a city noticeably different from the one he left just 10 days ago.

Mr. Clinton walked into the White House just before noon, hand in hand with his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, looking relaxed after capping his Asian summit with a weekend golfing vacation in Hawaii.

But in the days to come, the optimistic side of the president's nature will be sorely tested by the new and emboldened Republican majority in Congress.

Rep. Newt Gingrich, soon to be speaker of the House, is planning festivities for the first week of January that rival an inauguration. And the Republicans' "first 100 days" planning for the 104th Congress is an approach usually reserved for new presidents.

The GOP also is pursuing other strategies that sound to White House officials very much like a vendetta.

Armed with their new committee chairmanships, several Republicans are poised to reopen congressional investigations into the Whitewater affair, including detours into several sub-plots, including one that is personally painful to the Clintons, the suicide of deputy White House counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr.

In addition, some conservatives, emboldened by the Nov. 8 Republican sweep, are showing a kind of open contempt for Mr. Clinton that appears to White House aides to border on disrespect for the office.

As the president enjoyed a round of golf on Friday, Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina said in a nationally televised interview that he didn't think Mr. Clinton was up to the job of commander-in-chief, adding, "And neither do the people in the armed forces."

Pressed to repudiate Mr. Helms' statements, Republican Senate leader Bob Dole said yesterday that he did not agree, but the White House staff has been chafing under such remarks for the past week and is eager for signs of assurance and confidence from the president.

"We're past the 'Day After' syndrome," said one senior White House aide who did not make the trip to Asia. "But if the president is upbeat, that's going to help a lot."

At a fund-raiser late Friday night in Honolulu, where Mr. Clinton rested for a couple of days after attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, the president sounded like a man ready to face the challenges back in Washington.

"What has always made us great is not moaning or being negative or being divided or running down people who are different from what we are," Mr. Clinton said at a dinner for retiring Hawaiian Gov. John Waihee. "What has always made us great is coming together, facing our problems, joining together and figuring out some practical, hard-headed ways to solve our problems."

This week, Mr. Clinton will plunge into foreign policy issues. Today, the president meets with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the Oval Office. He is scheduled for a series of meetings tomorrow, including a state dinner with Ukrainian President Leonid D. Kuchma. On Wednesday, the Clintons plan to head to Camp David for the Thanksgiving weekend.

Before he leaves, however, White House officials hope to nail down with Congress the pending world trade pact known as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). It doesn't promise to be easy, as Republicans seem bent on extracting promises on tax issues or delaying passage until after January, when they will be a majority in both houses.

There are potential pitfalls for Mr. Clinton as he seeks to remake his image to correspond more closely with the electorate.

An example came last week, after Mr. Gingrich said that the House Republicans would offer a constitutional amendment on school prayer. Mr. Clinton, speaking in Jakarta, Indonesia, made statements supportive of the idea.

Liberal and Jewish Democrats were livid, and the next day, White House officials began "clarifying" and backing off the school prayer issue. Nevertheless, the flap underscored the very doubts about Mr. Clinton harbored by even Democratic supporters -- that he is squishy even on core issues.

"I don't know what he believes," complained liberal Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who ran against Mr. Clinton in the 1992 primaries, but later endorsed him warmly. "It's another indication. What does he stand for?"

The perception that he often tries to be all things to all people may be Mr. Clinton's most enduring problem. His own aides acknowledge privately that when he comes across this way, he often ends up pleasing nobody.

Conservative Democrats point out that Mr. Clinton got himself cross-wise with the military establishment and Christian evangelicals when he made gays in the military a priority soon after assuming office. What they may not remember, however, is that, in the end, Mr. Clinton also alienated gay activists, many of whom had been his most ardent supporters in 1992.

"That's why pandering to the right on this school prayer thing makes no sense," said Darlaine C. Gardetto, a University of Missouri sociology and women's studies professor who is studying the role of Hillary Rodham Clinton. "He's never going to convince the Christian right that he's OK. He ought to take care of his [Democratic] base instead."

On the other hand, party moderates active in the centrist Democratic Leadership Council feel betrayed by the man who promised to be a "different kind of Democrat." They believe he's been too liberal.

"He used the New Democrat agenda to sell himself to the country, but like everything with him, it was lacking in genuineness," said DLC activist Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow with the Center for the New West.

"How can people know who he is and what he stands for when he doesn't know himself?"

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