Look for Clinton to throw a few bones to the party's liberals this year

January 07, 1998|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Is the ''real'' Bill Clinton finally getting ready to stand up?

Word from presidential aides is that Mr. Clinton will push the Republican-controlled Congress for major increases in social spending. Such talk is certain to trigger speculation that at last he is going to start acting like a traditional liberal Democrat.

Consider the source

But based on his track record, the liberals will be prudent to hold their celebrating until they see how far the president actually goes in this matter, and how hard he fights for what he proposes.

Mr. Clinton has been sharply criticized by liberal Democrats ever since his ambitious comprehensive health-care reform initiative failed in 1994. They say the failure was a result of the president caving in to the Republicans and to the more conservative ''new Democrat'' elements in his own party. The liberals have deplored his seeming unwillingness to use much of the high popularity he has enjoyed in the polls on spending proposals certain to arouse stiff GOP opposition.

His swallowing of the Republican-led welfare reforms of 1996, blasted by liberals as pulling much of the social safety net out from under the nation's poor and immigrant population, particularly chagrined his party's liberals. At the same time, they have been turned off by his much-ballyhooed ''triangulation'' strategy -- of positioning himself comfortably between them and the Republicans in Congress.

Medicare proposal

But yesterday, the president recommended that retirees ages 62 to 64 be allowed to buy Medicare coverage, something that's automatically available to Americans when they reach 65. He is said also to be ready to restore food stamps to many legal immigrants who lost them in the welfare-reform package he accepted in 1996.

The catalyst for all this is the rosy economic outlook, which has led to talk of budget surpluses and suggestions by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other Republicans that tax money thus up for grabs be used for further tax cuts, not more social spending.

In weekend television interview shows, both House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer and House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich threw cold water on Mr. Clinton's proposed new spending. Both Messrs. Archer and Kasich questioned the wisdom of expanding benefits in a Medicare system whose solvency down the road is already of major concern.

Mr. Clinton, in addition to these plans, has also passed the word through aides that he will call on Congress this year to undertake a bipartisan effort to reform the Social Security system by 1999, possibly bringing Congress into special session after the 1998 congressional elections to make tough decisions on the system's long-term financial woes.

Loyal opposition

While commending this idea, the Republican leaders question the wisdom of any tinkering with Medicare until such a congressional review is completed.

While Mr. Clinton's expected proposals appear to be a response to the unhappy liberal elements in his party, they are another step in his plodding effort to change the nation's health-care system.

That step-by-step approach is hardly a throwback to the old liberal New Deal spirit of a Democratic Party that wore its commitment to the nation's poor, elderly and disadvantaged on its sleeve for decades during and after the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It may be that Bill Clinton, thinking about his legacy, has decided to respond more to the yearnings of his party's liberals for restoration of its old image. But as a politician who recognizes the political downside of policies that can be denigrated as giveaways by their critics, he's not likely to go overboard allowing himself to be perceived as a liberal after all.

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

Pub Date: 1/07/98

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