Taking credit and getting it are 2 quite different things



WASHINGTON -- When President Clinton yesterday signed the first product of bipartisanship to come out of the new Republican-controlled Congress -- the bill requiring its members to cover employees with the same workplace protections they themselves have -- a notable witness to the signing in the Oval Office was Tom Foley, deposed in the midterm elections as speaker of the House.

Foley wasn't there because the president forgot that he wasn't speaker anymore, or that he wasn't on speaking terms with Foley's successor, Republican Newt Gingrich. The new speaker was invited but sent his No. 2 man, House Majority Leader Richard Armey, and Foley was there in recognition of the work he had done to pass the bill -- last year.

His presence was an unsubtle reminder that basically the same bill had passed the House when it was still under Democratic control, but was blocked in the Senate by the Republicans -- many of the very same Republicans who voted for it this year, now that their party could claim credit.

To nobody's surprise, the Republicans took note that the bill reached the president's desk earlier in the session than any previous important legislation since 1933, when a Democratic-controlled Congress rushed an emergency bank bill to new President Franklin D. Roosevelt to cope with the Great Depression.

In getting this bill to Clinton so quickly, the Republicans were making an early down payment on their promise in the "Contract with America" to end business as usual in Congress by achieving major reforms in the first 100 days of their congressional reign.

But the Democrats also noted that enactment of the bill fulfilled a campaign promise that Clinton had made in his 1992 presidential campaign.

In signing it, the president pointedly thanked Foley and others "who were instrumental in supporting the legislation in the previous session of Congress, where it passed the House but not the Senate."

In the midterm election campaign in which the Republicans won House control for the first time in 40 years, many of them promised that if their party did take over the House, passing this bill would be a first order of business. Their Democratic &r opponents pointed out that the House under the Democrats had already passed it, and that if it hadn't been for Republican obstructionism in the Senate it would already have been a law. But that fact carried little weight with the voters.

As other measures are sent to the Oval Office for presidential signature in the months ahead, Foley probably won't be there as a conspicuous reminder that a number of them had been passed by the Democrats in previous sessions, but had been blocked by the Republicans who now see the light, now that they can claim credit.

With or without Foley, however, the president is going to be hard-pressed to win public acceptance that he and his party have been responsible in large or small part for legislation pushed through a Congress controlled by the Republicans. So much ballyhoo has been associated with the GOP takeover and "Contract" that cooperative Democrats and Clinton are likely to be seen as inconsequential in the equation.

Even regarding the accomplishments of the president in his own right over the first two years of his term, he is having trouble convincing voters that they happened. Despite his deficit-reduction package of 1993 and his reduction of the government work force, voters continue to rail against him -- with help from the Republicans -- as a champion of bigger and more expensive government.

President Clinton is learning, in other words, that taking credit and getting credit are two different things.

As he strives to work in a bipartisan spirit with a Congress controlled by the opposition party, he risks a public perception that whatever is achieved is a result of the new GOP congressional majority. Certainly the Republicans will say that's so.

If Clinton is to be seen as more than the tail of the Republican legislative dog, he will need to find issues that bear his own mark but nevertheless command enough Republican support to pass.

The alternative as he attempts to revive his political fortunes is to appear to concede leadership on the domestic stage to the GOP leaders who are eager to turn him out of office in 1996.

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