Democrats get the jitters as Clinton tries to figure out his 1996 persona


WASHINGTON -- Many Democrats are up in arms at President Clinton's decision to seek and apparently accept the political advice of Dick Morris, a consultant who has worked for several conservative Republicans in the recent past.

It is Mr. Morris, the theory goes, who is responsible for the president's repeated flights of rhetorical fancy in the last few weeks in which the president has wallowed in critical self-examination -- blaming himself for, among other things, raising taxes too much and reforming welfare too little.

And, Democrats complain, it is the consultant's notion of ''triangulation'' -- setting Mr. Clinton apart from both liberal Democrats and the Republicans -- that has become the guiding strategy as the White House approaches 1996 campaign.

But the criticism of Mr. Morris misses the point. The problem is not that he is giving bad advice but that the president is following that advice. As is the case in any campaign, the responsibility ultimately rests with the candidate, not the handlers.

That answer is even less palatable for Democrats looking to their XTC president for leadership. The only inference they can draw from Mr. Clinton's conduct is that he is a politician without a core of convictions who listens to the last person to get his ear.

Party strategists are even more alarmed because this president not only has doubts about the direction he wants to go in but insists on ruminating publicly about his soul-searching, as he did in discussing taxes with several groups of businessmen and in his celebrated telephone conversation with conservative Democratic writer Ben Wattenberg.

Arguing with himself

Thus, we have the spectacle of the president arguing with himself semi-publicly about whether he should be a ''New Democrat'' or a liberal or something else entirely. But it is not a picture of a leader who is searching intellectually as much as it is of a politician trying to position himself for his re-election campaign.

In fact, voters probably don't care whether Bill Clinton is a new or old Democrat. The labels regularly used as shorthand by politicians and the press don't mean a lot to most people. They look at a president's actions in deciding whether he is too liberal or too conservative for their taste.

The problem with Mr. Clinton is that he always has sent conflicting signals. He was elected in 1992 as a ''different kind of Democrat'' -- meaning not another Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis but instead someone who talked tough about welfare and was willing to affront rather than placate Jesse Jackson.

But his first conspicuous action in the White House was the attempt to end discrimination against homosexuals in the armed forces. That policy, plus his support for gun control and his traditionally liberal approach to staffing his government all came as a shock to relatively conservative Democrats who felt misled. But even those who approved of his more liberal initiatives began to wonder where he stood.

The doubts about the president also were nourished by the various controversies that arose during the 1992 campaign about such tangential and essentially trivial issues as his history in evading the draft during the Vietnam war and in smoking marijuana. Mr. Clinton was seen as preoccupied with political positioning rather than driven by some set of consistent beliefs.

Level of trust

The result has been that he has not achieved a high level of trust with the electorate even when his policies have been largely successful and his performance ratings have improved. It is that context that makes the current spate of public self-examination so damaging politically.

On the face of it, political leaders should be able to change their minds on issues when circumstances change without being penalized. Nor should thoughtfulness be condemned. Ideological blindness should not be rewarded simply because it is consistent.

But the Democrats in Congress are demoralized these days. They are looking for leadership and some kind of cohesion in the party's agenda. Instead, they see a president backing away from a tax bill they supported at his behest and at no little political risk. And they see a president apparently being influenced by a consultant who has worked for, among others, Jesse Helms and Trent Lott.

President Clinton has a chance to redefine himself in the end game on the budget over the next few weeks. And he can be sure his fellow Democrats will be watching closely. They want to know where he stands.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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