Clinton wish list is simple politics

January 14, 1998|By David M. Shribman

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton is in the middle of a monthlong propose-a-thon. But his midwinter freshet of ideas and easy headlines should be seen for what it is: a spree of risk-free politics.

With the Republican Congress on the longest recess in a third of a century, the president has the Washington stage to himself. He's filling it with proposal after proposal, all aimed at cozying up to Democratic constituencies he alienated in the past year and ++ building support among groups in which Democrats have to make inroads between now and the next presidential election.

Shooting blanks

And though the proposals invariably are described as bold -- and in the case of the child care plan, which would cost $21.7 billion over five years, expensive -- they expose the president to almost no risk. He is offering these programs knowing full well most of them will not be enacted. In fact, most will never come to a vote on Capitol Hill.

So far this month, the president Mr. Clinton told the political scientists and philosophers who sat with him at one long table the other night that he worries that the idea of "the nation" is fading here at century's end.

has rolled out a plan to expand Medicare, subsidize child care, boost funding for the Peace Corps, create work-study positions, restore legal immigrants' eligibility for food stamps, enact tax credits for small businesses, increase AIDS spending, double funds for health research and increase funding for aid to the homeless.

Taken together, this package of proposals would be extremely unlikely to win the nation's endorsement, even with the air full of talk of a budget surplus. A Gallup Poll last week for CNN and USA Today showed that three of four Americans polled still believe the federal budget deficit is a serious matter, with two of three Americans believing the budget will not be balanced next year.

But the January offensive isn't aimed at the nation at large, and it isn't conceived as a legislative agenda or coordinated call to action. Rather, it is a series of siren calls aimed at selected slices of the electorate.

The Medicare plan is targeted at aging workers, most of them middle-class males, a constituency corralled in the past two decades by Republicans. The child care plan is aimed at working women, one of the sturdiest Democratic voting groups of the Clinton years. The food stamps plan is intended to bolster the party's appeal to immigrant groups, especially those Latinos whose affinity for the Republicans has been shaken by the GOP's hard line on immigration.

By the time the State of the Union message Jan. 27 is over, there will be more proposals. And though presidents are judged by the bills they sign into law, not the plans they offer, Mr. Clinton's January offensive is part of his drive to create a legacy.

Part of the president's January parade of proposals represents Mr. Clinton's exploration about the nature of our politics and about the state of the nation. Amid all the new plans and proposals, the president sat down last week with 14 leading intellectuals, engaging them in a discussion of the idea of "the nation" -- the public identification with the country.

The president is struggling now to prepare his State of the Union message. Aware that he has been criticized for setting forth a string of narrow-gauge proposals, Mr. Clinton is searching for a way to grab the nation's attention and enhance his political and historical standing.

Mr. Clinton told the political scientists and philosophers who sat with him at one long table the other night that he worries that the idea of "the nation" is fading here at century's end.

Major change ahead

Thinkers such as Harvard's Michael J. Sandel believe the end of the 20th century, like the end of the 19th century, is being marked by an important transition. A hundred years ago, the economy had become national, but U.S. political institutions still were local.

President Theodore Roosevelt's answer to this problem was to build up the national government as a rival to big business, and with it to build a national idea -- the thought that Americans are part of a nation, and a nation can achieve things that individuals and local governments cannot. This was Roosevelt's New Nationalism, and though conceived by a Republican, it became the intellectual and political property of the Democrats.

Now the challenge is more difficult. The economy has become global, outrunning the reach of national politics and democratic authority. But Mr. Clinton thinks Americans still crave the idea of nation -- a nation with things to get done. Thus, his barrage of proposals.

But if the president's push has its philosophical underpinnings, it remains also a matter of politics and the pursuit of good press. Toward the end of his forthcoming book on the 1996 presidential election, "Showtime," Roger Simon quotes William M. Daley, then a Chicago lawyer, now the secretary of commerce. "Does the president run the government or does he run a public relations operation at the White House?" Mr. Daley asks.

The answer, the politics of January has shown, is that he does both.

David M. Shribman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/14/98

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