So, Comeback, Kid

The Clinton presidency is in trouble. To regain the public trust and have a shot at winning in 1996, "Slick Willy" must become more like Forrest Gump. He must rediscover his moral center and fight for those who "play by the rules."

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Midterm elections are never a happy time for the party in power, but Haiti notwithstanding, 1994 could mark the beginning of a political apocalypse. The marginally improved economy Clinton has enjoyed (under what he has termed, according to Bob Woodward, the "Eisenhower Republican" policies of his presidency) has appeased virtually no one. The traditionally Republican constituencies of Wall Street and the bond market are reasonably docile, but nervous, and more than overshadowed in the political discourse by the rabid hostility of the party's fundamentalist wing. The Democrats' own traditional constituencies, having spent two years watching campaign promises drop like timber in an Amazon rain forest, feel impotent and ignored, and lack the enthusiasm needed to fuel a successful election campaign.

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The Clintonians, meanwhile, are preoccupied with self-inflicted wounds ranging from lackluster appointments to Whitewater and Paula Jones, coupled with inept judgments on congressional matters. On health care, for instance, Hillary Clinton and Ira Magaziner led the White House down a blind alley by spending more than a year drawing up an impossibly elaborate plan instead of simply laying out the administration's key demands when it still had the momentum to force Congress to respond. The administration thereby lost control of the one issue for which the president had claimed to be husbanding his strength.

Strategically directionless, functionally disorganized, and psychologically dispirited, the White House is becoming a kind of titular party headquarters. The presidency, of course, is not what it used to be: The international economy is far more constraining, and the media are less docile and hopelessly addicted to mindless sensationalism. But the collapse of presidential authority under Clinton goes beyond these kinds of structural problems. The military and the CIA routinely diss the president and his policies in public. Republican flack David Gergen departed the administration behind a barrage of farewell interviews in which he all but blamed the president for his own failures. Outside the Beltway, Rush Limbaugh, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and the like stoke up a level of hatred for the Clintons so violent and irrational that it occasionally recalls the last days of the Weimar Republic.

THE DIAGNOSIS

Judged exclusively on its own terms, the administration's record might rate a gentleman's C. Clinton passed the North American Free Trade Agreement and a budget calling for significant short-term deficit reduction. (Of course, NAFTA was Bush's issue and the deficit, Perot's, but never mind.) On both, Clinton sided with his conservative economic advisers, Lloyd Bentsen, Roger Altman, and Robert Rubin, and went against his core constituencies. He was rewarded with about 48 hours of good press for his troubles.

Foreign policy, where the administration has been judged incompetent, has truly been a mixed bag. Compared to Bush and Reagan, Clinton has not yet sold lethal weapons--as far as we know--to any terrorist nation, nor gotten the United States embroiled in any impossible foreign conflicts.

Yes, Clinton has lain down and died before the military-industrial complex. (Would that he were an "Eisenhower Republican" vis--vis the Pentagon.) But the places where he has looked the worst--Somalia, Bosnia, and (at least until the "rescue mission") Haiti--are fraught with problems that Bush happily let fester as he posed for photos in the Saudi desert. The dirty little secret of the Washington establishment is that no one knows what to do in any of these places--though that hardly restricts the kibitzing from the cheap seats.

Still, the administration's quasi-accomplishments pale before the fundamental fact of the Clinton presidency: Clinton has squandered the public's good will. In countless tiny ways, Clinton has proven himself a man not to be trusted. Voters had this feeling about Clinton during the election, but while judging him to be a flawed philanderer in his private life, they nonetheless believed he would fight for the "people who play by the rules" as a populist president.

Instead, Clinton appears to have gone over to the other side. His intellectual capture by the forces against which he campaigned has destroyed his most important asset: his image as a fighter for the average man and woman. Today, Clinton the non-inhaling, dissembling philanderer and Clinton the president seem all of a piece. Together, they will almost certainly combine in 1996 to form Clinton the landslide loser.

A FAILED PRESCRIPTION

Clinton's advisers say he gets angriest when he is given bad news without being offered a positive strategy to turn the problem around. This tendency has resulted in some extremely unpleasant meetings with his pollsters of late, but no clear sense of how to regain the political initiative and build 1992's plurality into a majority for 1996. With disaster looming, something in the president's political strategy has got to give.

Passing more legislation to improve Clinton's record as an effective chief executive is not really a live option. The toothless legislation he passed in his first two years did not do the trick, either in public perception or private reality, and he has little chance of achieving even that with a nasty new Congress. Anything the administration wants to pass in this session will have to cater to the slash-the-deficit/throw-the-bums-in-jail political philosophy that presently undergirds America's Limbaugh-driven political discourse. Clinton will probably be tempted by this route, but as (at least) the nominal head of the Democratic Party, he cannot venture deep enough into Limbaughland to satisfy the mood of Congress without generating an open revolt among liberal Democrats and destroying what remains of his tenuous political base.

The White House political staff, hardly uninterested in winning a second term, gleans two slim chances for slipping through the net again. The first is to pray for another three-way race. This is problematic for the obvious reason that most presidential elections in the United States are two-way races.

The second flickering light that keeps the White House staff from circulating rsums is the hope that the Republican Party will nominate someone on the ideological fringe of American politics. Ironically, White House staffers were heartened by the nomination of Ollie North in Virginia and the apparent takeover of the state party by people who read Orwell's "1984," not as a cautionary tale, but as a "how-to" manual. A cry was heard outside the White House mess calling for "many Virginias," in the hope that the Republican Party would simply read itself out of the center-right American consensus in a fit of self-destructive piety.

But this strategy, too, is almost certainly a loser. Ronald Reagan proved that smart media consultants can package even the nuttiest views behind a smile and a wave, and the American people will vote based on personality rather than issues. Furthermore, it is hardly beyond the abilities of, say, Bob Dole or Dick Cheney to package himself as a card-carrying member of the Republican lunatic fringe to win the nomination, only to recover relative sanity in time for the general election. Mainstream election coverage is so ahistorical and genuinely contentless that a candidate could probably claim to be possessed by the spirit of Theodoric of Ostrogoth during the primaries and still be treated as a serious thinker after Labor Day.

To choose somebody that the media deem beyond the pale of electability--as they did George McGovern in 1972--the Republicans would have to nominate Dan Quayle, and it's hard to believe they could be that stupid. If, on the other hand, they get really smart, and offer the top spot on the ticket to Colin Powell--should he decide that he is, after all, a Republican--the 1996 race could do for the Democrats what the election of 1852 did for the Whigs.

RADICAL NEW TREATMENT

Clinton's only hope is to try to re-reinvent himself back to being a populist. To do this he must get his messy foreign policy problems the hell off his plate. The only sensible course of action is to follow through with the much-discussed option of firing Warren Christopher, who rivals Yasir Arafat in the negative charisma category, and find a secretary of state who at least gives people the impression that things are under control. The importance of the Middle East peace negotiations (Christopher's one area of relative success) provides a perfect excuse to let him keep his perks and status as a special envoy while booting him out of his current job. Clinton is said to be considering Colin Powell (who looked awfully comfortable briefing the press after his successful mission to Haiti) as a possible replacement for Christopher.

On the domestic front, the president needs a new slash-and-burn strategy designed to distinguish himself, in the public eye, from the insider politicians, lobbyists, and media pundits whom most Americans blame (correctly) for the destruction of our democracy and the hollowing-out of our economy. Clinton cannot do this without upsetting a number of his friends in Congress and even his own Cabinet. If they crow too loudly, he should find himself some new friends.

Because I know how upset the president gets when he gets nothing but bad news without a pro-active strategy, here's the plan:

  1. Forget about passing a raft of new legislation. Instead of trying to appear effective by passing a wide variety of watered-down legislation, Clinton should pick two or three bills for which he's willing to go to the mat and lose, if necessary. Then he should focus on changing the rules of Washington culture--and that includes cutting loose anyone who won't get with the new program. Clinton can tell the American people that he tried to work within the system, but it has become so thoroughly corrupted by lobbyists, special interests, money, and careerism that the entire thing needs to be cleaned out.
  2. To that end, Clinton should demand new campaign finance legislation outlawing all PAC contributions, soft money, and any other kind of political bribe worth more than $500. This will mean throwing out his carefully calibrated campaign finance legislation in exchange for an entirely new populist campaign. To make this more credible to voters, the president should also throw his support behind a conservatively drawn constitutional amendment allowing states to pass their own congressional term-limit legislation. This will divert considerable Republican thunder, while allowing those states that want to keep their representatives to do so.
  3. Next, the administration needs to come up with a radical deficit-reduction plan that "ends welfare," not only for poor people, but also for the rich and the military. The money saved by going after stock frauds, second mortgages, and pork-barrel weapons systems should be recycled into a special "jobs" fund designed to offer workers the training and education that Congress denied them when it slashed the administration's first economic plan. This "Welfare to Work" program should be the centerpiece of every policy speech Clinton gives for the next two years.
  4. To address the increasing fear of violent crime, Clinton should back a series of laws introduced by Sen. Daniel Moynihan, D-N.Y., to place prohibitive taxes on the production of all non-hunting ammunition. The new taxes will pay for more police officers, additional drug treatment centers and youth boot camps. Let the pro-violence extremists at the National Rifle Association and its allies squeal as loudly as they like. What doesn't kill Clinton, in this case, can only make him stronger.
  5. To recreate some of the populist energy of the campaign, Clinton and Gore should alternate taking trips on a special bus to sell his plan to the hinterlands. When Cabinet members or congressional leaders need to meet the president, let them take a commercial flight to meet the bus. Americans will eat this symbolism up. Moreover, if Clinton's not worrying about passing legislation, his schedule ought to offer plenty of time for some good old-fashioned populist demagoguery.

THE PROGNOSIS

Is a scenario like this possible? Well, perhaps. Gergen is gone and conservative "Mac" McLarty is increasingly irrelevant. Al Gore, however, is a problem. He has consistently allied himself with the insider consensus, against those advisers arguing for a more populist route. He is a deficit hawk and a national security traditionalist. But Gore wants to be president someday, and he knows that going down with this ship won't do much for his rsum. When push comes to shove, he will take orders. (If serious hardball is necessary, Clinton might want to float the idea of replacing Gore with Colin Powell.)

Among White House staff, liberal advisers Harold Ickes and George Stephanopoulos will be happy to go along, as will the political operation of James Carville, Paul Begala, Mandy Grunwald, and Stan Greenberg. Wall Street's friends--Bentsen, Rubin, etc.--won't like any of these ideas, but Clinton should know better than to ask their advice about how to win elections. Aside from Gore, the key question marks are Chief of Staff Leon Panetta and Chief of Clinton, Hillary. Here we have a cause for optimism: Panetta is a team player and Hillary, like her husband, is concerned first and foremost with winning.

The most crucial question is how badly does Clinton himself want to win in 1996? Does he want it enough to face the reality of his post-1994 predicament? It is in this cold, calculated, and nakedly political regard--and only in this regard--that we can take comfort that we may have elected ourselves a populist president.

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