Clinton shows that he counts Budget impasse leaves White House quietly delighted

November 19, 1995|By Carl M. Cannon

WASHINGTON -- It seems such a short time ago that President Clinton insisted, rather pitifully, that yes, he was, too, "relevant."

Well, now he's shown he's relevant all right, derailing the Republican juggernaut and shutting down half the federal government rather than accept even a temporary GOP spending plan he didn't like.

With tourists being turned away at the Lincoln Memorial and Republican leaders twisting in a cold November wind, Mr. Clinton was having so much fun calling the shots from the Oval Office that he canceled a campaign-style trip to Boston and sent Vice President Al Gore to Japan in his place.

Publicly, White House officials wore long faces over the partial shutdown. Privately, they were delighted with public opinion polls showing that American voters, by a 2-to-1 margin, blame the Republicans for the crisis more than Mr. Clinton.

A former White House press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, once noted "Polls go up, polls go down," something the Clintonites say they realize. But after the vetoes, name-calling and government shutdowns have run their course, one question remains: What does Mr. Clinton want to have achieved from this fight?

Interviews with a half-dozen White House officials and several prominent Democratic Party professionals reveal that the president's strategists have three short-term goals:

They want the president to demonstrate to the nation that he has some backbone. They want to solidify his support among Democratic Party liberals by resisting certain elements of the Republican budget-cutting plans. Then, after having done that, they want him to align himself with the move to balance the budget, which is a wildly popular issue with swing voters.

If he can pull all this off, many of his advisers agree, the president will take a large step toward his over-arching, long-term goal: being re-elected in 1996.

"That's what this is all about, ultimately," says a Democratic campaign consultant, Dane Strother. "The Republicans know it, too."

Clinton's strategy

To accomplish his aims, Mr. Clinton wanted to back the Republicans down on their short-run, stopgap funding measures and still be able to negotiate with them on the overall budget. This document would be sold by the White House as a compromise solution more humane than the original Republican budget but more fiscally prudent than liberal Democrats would have liked.

Here is how he is trying to put that scenario together.

* Standing tall. First and foremost, Mr. Clinton, who has a reputation for vacillating on crucial issues, realized he needed to be seen as more resolute, several White House aides conceded.

One Democratic consultant who has talked to White House strategists said that in focus groups and polls of voters it became apparent that it was imperative for Mr. Clinton find an issue, any issue, take a position on it and stick with it "come hell or high water."

The budget gave him that chance, and even conservatives concede he took advantage of it.

"It looks like this president may have guts, after all," said Stephen Moore, an economist with the Cato Institute, referring to Mr. Clinton's vetoes last week. "This is what President Reagan should have done. I wrote every year that we should veto, veto, veto. The Reagan White House would talk tough -- but then caved."

* Shoring up the base. The budget battle also gave Mr. Clinton an opportunity to solidify his credentials with traditional Democratic Party liberals. These are not swing voters, but they are the foot soldiers who donate money, lick the stamps, knock on doors, and, in short, make a successful national campaign possible.

For months, as Mr. Clinton has portrayed the Republican plan to balance the budget in seven years as unfair to poor children, menacing to retirees and dangerous to the environment, his words have at times been indistinguishable from those of Congress' most intemperate Republican-baiters.

A $7-per-month increase in Medicare Part B premiums is a "crippling cut" that would cause Medicare "to wither on the vine," he says. Slimming down the administrative costs of the school lunch program is "harsh" and "extreme." Tax cuts that would give middle-class families 75 percent of the benefit are "tax breaks for the rich." And so on.

Hitting the old themes

Last Saturday, the president who promised to be a "new kind of Democrat" hit all the old, the traditional Democratic Party themes with a single analogy:

"Imagine the Republican Congress as a banker and the United States as a family that has to go to the bank for a short-term loan for a family emergency," Mr. Clinton said. "The banker says to the family, 'I'll give you the loan, but only if you'll throw the grandparents and the kids out of the house first.' "

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