Democratic activists avoid being Clinton cheerleaders

June 01, 1995|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

SEATTLE -- When Mayor Norman Rice spoke at a regional Democratic conference here the other day, he made a point of praising President Clinton's performance in office.

There should be nothing noteworthy about that -- an ambitious Democratic mayor lauding a Democratic president. But Rice's praise caused a small stir among party activists from 13 states in his audience because -- except for Democratic National Chairman Don Fowler -- Rice was the only speaker who seemed prepared to do it.

The incident was another small piece of evidence pointing to a particular problem vexing the president as he looks ahead to a campaign for re-election -- quite simply, that he fails to evoke much enthusiasm among fellow Democrats.

The same syndrome is obvious -- and perhaps more telling -- among Democrats in Congress. Party leaders do give pro forma lip service to the Clinton record in his first two years in the White House, but there are few Democrats in either the Senate or House willing to give him the kind of emotional backing that suggests they are willing to walk through a wall for their president.

The reasons are far from clear. Although it is true that Clinton has not spent years in the trenches with many of his party colleagues, as Walter F. Mondale had done when he became the party nominee in 1984, it is also true that he had been involved in party affairs for almost a decade before his election. He was neither an outsider such as Jimmy Carter in 1976 nor a forbidding personality such as Michael S. Dukakis.

On the contrary, it should not be forgotten that candidate Clinton energized his party in the 1992 campaign in which he presented himself as a "different kind of Democrat" who could defeat a Republican incumbent who had seemed invulnerable months before the campaign.

Nor is Clinton without substantial accomplishments in his first two years. He managed to win approval for the first budget in a generation to reduce the deficit. The economy has been growing steadily, if at a somewhat reduced rate lately. And he has taken steps to deal with issues of particular sensitivity to Democrats, such as the family leave bill.

His failures have been spectacular, however. He earned a reputation for weakness and White House ineptitude for his problems in putting together an administration reflecting the diversity of the population. He was stymied on his attempt to change the treatment of gays in the military, an effort that in retrospect was one he might have delayed.

Most importantly, Clinton spent heavily of his political capital in his first two years on reforming the health care system only to come away empty-handed.

And he has been unable to deal as yet with the investigations of the Whitewater affair and the uneasiness it has caused among Democrats watching those inquiries unfold.

Perhaps Clinton's most venal sin, however, has been losing. Although he wasn't on the ballot himself, the 1994 election results were seen as a referendum on his performance. The Democrats in Congress are well-aware that politicians do not prosper by associating themselves with an unpopular leader.

The president has shown some signs of at least a modest political revival in the last few weeks. His handling of the Oklahoma City disaster and the tough line he has taken subsequently on a wide range of issues -- from the nomination of Henry W. Foster Jr. to the ban on assault weapons to trade with Japan -- clearly have been behind a rise in his approval ratings.

Other presidents have found themselves in similar circumstances with little visible and ardent support inside their own party. That was true of Carter, for example, late in 1979. But he managed to recapture the offensive by defeating Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in a series of primaries to make the point that, whatever his failings, he wasn't an abject loser to be shunned.

The attitude of most of the activists who met here was clearly that they recognize the Democratic Party's revival depends on their ability to rally behind Clinton even if they may wish for someone more to their liking. As Paul Berendt, the party's state chairman in Washington, put it somewhat plaintively during one discussion, "We must stand up for our president."

But the fact that Norm Rice's speech was so conspicuous makes it obvious that Bill Clinton needs to give his followers more reason to get behind him before he faces a Republican challenger next year.

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