Governing by the Numbers

January 27, 1995|By RICHARD REEVES

Washington -- To the Republican congressmen smirking and whispering to each other as President Clinton offered his endless State of the Union message, the speech must have sounded like the beginning of President Clinton's second term -- a two-year term followed by a new Republican beginning.

There certainly was a gleam in New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's eyes when she gave her punchy response to the president's speech and began by talking about Washington crossing the Delaware in 1776. She looked and sounded great -- composure is her thing -- but there may be more to the politics of the next two years than going on television and repeating, ''Cut taxes. Cut taxes.''

The Republicans may be counting their revolution before it's hatched -- though Mr. Clinton certainly went along with them, talking about cutting taxes as much as he could. His acceptance of the defeat of 1994 was almost total. Except for pleading for the poor and saying he had the power to stop repeal of last year's federal ban on the selling of a few assault weapons, he gave a pretty Republican speech himself.

The president presented himself as a compleat politician, a guy satisfied to govern purely by the numbers -- by votes and polls. ''Our democracy has spoken,'' he said at the beginning. The line reminded me of the short and bitter concession speech of a Democrat named Dick Tuck after he lost a legislative election in California 25 years ago: ''The people have spoken -- the bastards!''

President Clinton, I think, conceded too easily, folded his tent or his cards too soon. He is inclined to define our democracy too literally as an exercise in head-counting. A 2 percent shift in the overall national congressional vote -- that's all that happened in 1994 -- does not mandate the end of republicanism (with a small ''r''), nor the end of representative government and presidential leadership.

But the president, like many politicians great and small before him, does worship the vote. In the middle of arguments over how far the United States should go in backing the return of President Aristide to Haiti, when there were serious questions about what kind of ''democrat'' the guy really was, Mr. Clinton cut off argument by saying, ''I know what they say about him, but he got 67 percent of the vote.''

He believes in the numbers, for better or worse -- even if there are some of us who think Bill Clinton would be a much better president over these two years if Leon Panetta put a guard at the door of the Oval Office with instructions to shred any polls or any newspaper reporting poll results. Another guard could sit there with a switch to cut off television and telephone lines when numbers came up.

It was a clever speech, perhaps too clever, in addition to being too long. Given the political circumstances of the moment, Mr. Clinton did as well as he could at repeatedly forcing the Republican majorities to stand on applaud lines like these: ''I am proud to say our country is stronger than it was two years ago,'' and, ''There doesn't have to be a law for everything!''

''I'll tell you what,'' he said, ''if you give me the line-item veto . . . '' The new leader of the Republicans, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who signaled the troops below the rostrum all night, sprang to his feet, banging his hands together because he thinks that veto pen will soon be in the hands of a Republican, perhaps his own. (The cheer line that brought me to my feet was the one about the national laissez-faire attitude toward violence on television -- an insanity he properly laid at the feet or the bloody hands of television executives.)

When the Democratic president advocated raising the minimum wage -- a professional ploy to emphasize Republican distaste for the poor, working or not -- the television cameras cut to the new Republican majority leader, Richard Armey, and the new majority whip, Tom DeLay, both Texans, laughing and whispering jokes like sixth-graders making spitballs under their desks. And that, of course, is in effect what they are doing.

I do not underrate the president's vaunted comeback powers, but he looked to me a bit too eager to come back as a Republican. There is a paradox here and now. Among the greatest attributes any president can have is predictability -- the word in fashion now is ''convictions'' -- something Mr. Clinton did not seem to have in his two-year first term. But, in fact, he does seem predictable; he goes with the flow, floating on a tide of numbers out where the currents may be too strong for him.

9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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