Clinton plans to adopt more moderate stances

November 26, 1994|By Carl N. Cannon | Carl N. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- As a White House military aide was positioning the VIPs who were to speak along with President Clinton in the Rose Garden Wednesday, Senate Republican leader Bob Dole was told to stand to the president's right.

"The far right?" Mr. Dole inquired.

"No, no, no," interjected Mr. Clinton. "The moderate right!"

Then the president cackled delightedly.

Standing in the November sunlight, a couple of presidential aides watched the scene unfold and smiled what might have been their first healthy, public smiles since Nov. 8.

It's been more than two weeks since the Republicans swept to power in both houses of Congress -- and most of the governorships across the country -- and the shock is still being absorbed by Democrats. Inside the White House, however, the sense of impending doom is starting to lift.

The reason is that the president and his advisers have settled on where they'll have him stand -- he's going to move to the right, moderately.

The president, several top aides say, has decided to claim the ground in the middle of the political spectrum and try to work with influentialmoderates of both parties. It is a stance that aligns him on most issues with big majorities in U.S. public opinion, but that will put him at odds with powerful wings of both political parties.

Aides suggest that in pursuit of this strategy, the Clinton administration will produce an austere federal budget early next year, rethink a host of pending liberal appointments that require Senate confirmation, accelerate the pace of Vice President Al Gore's "reinventing government" task force, agree to consolidate some Cabinet-level agencies, ease out a few more youthful liberals on the White House staff and, perhaps most importantly, start giving much more respect to Republican leaders.

"The president will go back to his roots, which are in the middle of thepolitical spectrum," explained White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta. "The first priority is that we must present a credible budget."

To conservative Republicans such as Newt Gingrich, the likely House speaker, Mr. Clinton's political "roots" are in the anti-war movement and the liberal presidential candidacy of George McGovern.

Alienated Democrats

Many middle-of-the-road Democrats agree, maintaining that although he ran for office promising to be a "new kind of Democrat," as president Mr. Clinton has revealed his liberal colors. They cite the president's design of a large, government-controlled health care system to his adoption of racial and gender criterion for appointees.

"I always thought he was a closet leftie," complained Joel Kotkin, an activist with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), an organization Mr. Clinton once led. "He sold the New Democrats down the river."

Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a DLC think tank, believes that if Mr. Clinton had made welfare reform the first visible initiative of his administration -- instead of gays in the military -- the public would have formed an entirely different impression of him.

Even Democrats who'd like the president to guide the party toward the middle are skeptical that the president will really change direction.

"All this sounds great, but who's going to fire Hillary, I wonder?" scoffed one former Carter administration official.

White House officials express frustration with such talk. They point out that Mr. Clinton's version of the crime bill sent to Capitol Hill last year was drafted by White House moderates and contained both the tough law enforcement approaches favored by conservatives as well as the crime prevention programs pushed by liberals.

"How we could have moved any more to the center on the crime bill I will never know," complained one White House aide.

Beyond not getting the credit they feel they deserve, Clinton administration officials also raise another question about moving the middle of the spectrum: Where are the votes on Capitol Hill?

While public opinion surveys show Americans, as a whole, to be in the middle of the two major parties on the highly visible political issues, this is not necessarily the reality in Congress.

Republican Party professionals concede that the huge incoming freshman class of House Republicans appears to be not only more conservative than the nation as a whole, but probably more conservative than the average Republican voter.

Likewise, the 1994 election left the Democrats, through the process of subtraction, more liberal than they were before.

Some of these Democrats on Capitol Hill wonder what, precisely, moving to the center entails in terms of policy and appointments.

Mr. Panetta, in a recent interview , offered a couple of examples.

One was tax cuts. Mr. Panetta vowed to work with the Republicans on these proposals, but also insisted that corresponding cuts be found in federal spending so that the tax cuts don't mean a huge increase in the deficit.

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