The president versus the president Eternal triangle: Republicans, Democrats and the adroit Bill Clinton.

November 05, 1995

WHEN REPUBLICAN political adviser Dick Morris started coaching his old friend Bill Clinton last summer, everyone knew it would just be a matter of time before the president started distancing himself from liberal Democrats who, from his perspective, constitute most members of his party in Congress.

The strategy is "triangulation." Republicans are on the right of the base, Democrats on the left, and at the apex of the triangle, half way between and above them, is the president. President Clinton, who has always been known as a politician of less than firm convictions, took to the strategy like a waffle to syrup.

In a sense, it is nothing new for a president to try to establish himself as a centrist, just left or right of his party's congressional center of gravity. What is so remarkable about Bill Clinton's version of it is the breath-taking obviousness and hollowness of it. For example, he said at a fund-raiser to "those who think I raised taxes too much . . I think I raised them too much, too." That was two weeks ago. Last week to a newspaper columnist who said he didn't like the president's welfare reform proposal, the president replied, "I wasn't pleased with it, either." Furthermore, he said, he is sorry he hasn't been the "new Democrat" -- moderate to conservative -- he campaigned to be.

He almost sounds as if he would like to run as a third party candidate against his own party and his own presidency.

It comes across as exclusively strategy and tactics. No substance at all. Which fits right in with the philosophy of his new adviser, Mr. Morris, who recently had been limiting his client list to Republicans -- such as, for example, Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina. Commentator Charles Krauthammer says, "In Morris, Clinton has found the only man in America with fewer principles than he has." That's hyperbole, but the Clinton-Morris version of triangle politics deserves it.

It is also working neatly -- at least at this stage. Despite the fact that Mr. Clinton has moved away from his party's congressional wing, it appears that he will be the first president in modern times to be renominated without a primary or convention challenger.

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