Candidate Clinton Returns

March 05, 1995|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton, with nearly two years left in his term, appears to have shifted his focus away from generating lofty initiatives and onto a more down-to-earth prize: electoral votes.

At the White House, signs that a political animal is on the premises are numerous: They are in Mr. Clinton's rhetoric, his body language, his guest list, and in a host of altered positions on core domestic policy issues, including the federal budget.

Mr. Clinton's loyalists, his adversaries and independent observers agree that this push into a re-election posture comes in response to the Republican takeover of Congress and the early activity of Republican presidential candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire.

"He started it right after the midterm elections," said presidential historian Bruce Buchanan. "His tax cuts, the so-called 'middle-class bill of rights,' all that was re-election oriented."

Clinton loyalists say he had no real choice: Control of Congress by an aggressive Republican Party has severely limited the president's ability to command majorities for his legislation.

"There's no harm done," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "As the minority party [on Capitol Hill], we weren't going to get anything done, anyway. Besides, the president is very comfortable moving in and out of presidential and campaign roles. It's seamless to him."

At a news conference Friday, Mr. Clinton moved easily between two worlds, one minute arguing for less name-calling in national politics and the next pounding the lectern and scolding the Republicans as the party of the rich willing to "target children in order to pay for tax cuts for upper-income Americans."

He also lamented the early start of the presidential race while simultaneously launching into what he admitted with a chuckle will be his 1996 campaign speech.

Mr. Clinton has also begun, as presidential candidates often do, to campaign against "Washington" as though it were alien terrain instead of the capital that he and his fellow Democrats controlled for the first two years of his term.

He has also assembled a team of pollsters, media consultants and campaign advisers, expanding the political apparatus he brought with him to Washington after his successful 1992 campaign.

Democratic Party sources say this group, which recently has been frequenting the White House to map re-election strategy, includes 1992 veterans James Carville, Stanley Greenberg, Paul Begala and Frank Greer, along with Richard Morris, Geoffrey Garin -- both pollsters -- and media adviser Robert D. Squier.

Some Democrats, still smarting over the defeat in fall's midterm elections, are cheered that Mr. Clinton is responding aggressively. Other Democrats find it disquieting that the president, in reacting to the Republican challenge, appears to be tailoring his responses to the focus groups, polls and folk wisdom imparted to him by these political advisers.

Privately, some Democrats also fret that Mr. Clinton is sidestepping the kind of leadership responsibilities that have traditionally been those of a president.

When Mr. Clinton held a welfare summit in Washington five weeks ago, some of the participants were surprised when he conceded that his administration would not be sending a welfare reform proposal to Capitol Hill this year -- and that the working version of the bill would be the one produced by House Republicans.

But Mr. Clinton, who pledged in 1992 to "end welfare as we know it," has also issued vague threats that he would veto a welfare bill that he considered too harsh.

Republican Party chief Haley Barbour complains that Mr. Clinton seems to neither want to lead nor follow the GOP. "It's the perpetual campaign with him. He seems most comfortable when he's running for office."

Mr. Clinton has also been accused of waffling on affirmative action, an issue that has surged to the center of the current political debate.

After Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and other Republican presidential candidates called for an end to racial preferences last month -- and after it became evident that California, a key state for Mr. Clinton's re-election chances, was going to have a referendum on the issue next year -- Mr. Clinton ordered a review of all affirmative action programs in the government. "We shouldn't defend things we can't defend," he said.

Until very recently, Mr. Clinton's Justice Department, under civil rights chief Deval Patrick, has been aggressively seeking to expand opportunities for minorities under the umbrella of affirmative action, even going so far as to switch sides in a New Jersey case in the middle of the litigation.

"The president's Justice Department never saw an affirmative action case it couldn't defend," said conservative scholar Terry Eastland, a veteran of the Reagan administration Justice Department. "The only new factor is California politics."

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