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Clinton enters new year on upswing President recovered well in 1995 from a disastrous 1994

January 01, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Last January, Mr. Clinton was coming off a horrific year, politically and personally. In 1994, his mother died; his closest friend, Webster L. Hubbell was headed for prison; his health care legislation had gone down in flames. In November, he was the designated target during the worst defeat the Democratic Party has experienced at the ballot box in 40 years.

Democrats reeled from shock to denial and back again. Meanwhile, the Republicans began enacting their ambitious legislative agenda to scale back the size and scope of government.

For his part, Mr. Clinton seemed to veer to the political right. He sacked Surgeon General M. Joycelyn Elders, requested more Pentagon spending, pushed tax cuts he had once said were unwise and announced a review of affirmative action.

In June, he suddenly sent Congress a revised budget that he said would balance the budget in 10 years. Few economists agreed -- and liberals on Capitol Hill attacked him because they thought he had reversed field on them again -- but it turned out that Mr. Clinton had discovered a strategy.

"It was to govern from the left but rhetorically sound like he was in the middle," said Republican operative Roger Stone.

The new approach was dubbed "triangulation" by Dick Morris, the nominally Republican consultant and longtime confidant of the Clintons. Triangulation meant setting up Mr. Clinton as a foil to what he termed the "extremism" of the new House Republicans, but also a counterweight to traditional Democratic liberals.

This strategy was tricky because Mr. Clinton and his aides were determined to avoid a challenge in the Democratic primaries. Thus, the affirmative action review was announced -- but Mr. Clinton proposed no major changes. The president also began paying more attention to environmental issues, and every proposed Republican spending curb was denounced as a sop to the rich at the expense of the needy.

GOP stumbles

Democrats say the Republicans overplayed their hand and believed, incorrectly, that the 1994 elections gave them a mandate to scale back government. But Mr. Mahe said he believes the opposite is true -- that the voters don't think the Republicans have done enough. Both sides agree, though, that the GOP stumbled in responding to the president.

"We should have had on his desk, Sept. 30, the day before the fiscal year began, all 13 appropriation bills, a reconciliation bill, a debt limit and welfare reform -- all of them in balance," Mr. Mahe said. "If he vetoes 'em, shut down the government, no continuing resolution -- and let him explain it to the American people. We couldn't get our act together."

By the time those bills had passed, Mr. Clinton's counterattacks had been honed to a fine edge, the public had been treated to Republican disagreements and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who should have been the most forceful advocate, was facing ethics charges and had to scale back public appearances as his disapproval ratings rose.

Jody Powell, press secretary for President Jimmy Carter, said he believes having a Republican Congress was an asset to Mr. Clinton.

"Historically, the only branch of government that can be personified is the presidency, and so, the president is [held] responsible for everything that goes on," said Mr. Powell. "That all changed with the elevation of a personality as strong as Gingrich. So now the Republicans get some of the blame."

There was another problem with having a Democratic Congress, he said, one Mr. Clinton shared with Mr. Carter.

Mr. Powell said that when both branches of government are controlled by Democrats, the final budget tends to reflect the midpoint of the Democratic Party. "That's hardly where the rest of the country is," he said.

In the end, this is a prime hope of Republicans: that "new Democrat" or old, Mr. Clinton is still a Democrat -- and that time has passed the party by.

Peter D. Hannaford, a former confidant of President Ronald Reagan, noted that despite the upswing in Mr. Clinton's approval rating, one recent poll result was telling. Only 43 percent of voters in a recent Gallup poll said Mr. Clinton deserved to be re-elected.

"That's almost eerie -- it's exactly what he got in 1992," said Mr. Hannaford with a chuckle. "He's still a 43 percent president. They're practically begging Ross Perot to get in again."

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