How Many Times Will Bill Clinton Blink?

Courage and the Presidency

President Bill Clinton speaks in Atlanta, GA, March 19th, 1993. Credit: Cynthia Johnson/Liaison/Getty

Springtime in Washington, and in ways too subtle for the tourists to notice, the Clinton presidency has begun turning soggy around the edges. This has not been a failure of brains and energy; during his first 100 days, Bill Clinton brilliantly established his presidential voice and articulated grand new visions for the nation. But doubts have begun to accumulate about crasser questions of how this president does politics, the patterns of style and strategy that will determine whether his visions become real or dissolve into yesterday's rhetoric.

As with every new president, the political community has been taking his measure. Back in February, politicians of both parties were taken aback by Clinton's bold proposals —– progressive tax increases and budget cuts aimed at numerous sacred cows. He also dazzled at televised town meetings and invented a new form of political dialogue with his timber summit in the Northwest. Swift congressional action on his budget plan and other measures reflected goodwill but also respect from other politicians.

But should they fear him? Must they bend to his will? Or can they safely maneuver around him? That's the basic, visceral question rival politicians ask in private. And though it is not yet fully answered about the new president, the initial evidence is worrisome, even ominous. On some large strategic matters and small parochial issues, Clinton has blinked.

In February, when he announced his economic plan, Clinton put down some controversial markers to demonstrate his reformer credentials by proposing to eliminate a host of hoary subsidies long protected by congressional privilege. Six weeks later, the president folded on many of these, ingratiating himself with Democratic senators to win their votes.

In the West, Senator Max Baucus of Montana and others pleaded for a pass on raising cattle-grazing fees on public lands and collecting royalties on mineral mining. Clinton yielded. In the South, Senator Howell Heflin of Alabama wanted to continue the Tennessee Valley Authority's pointless program for fertilizer subsidy. Clinton granted the favor. From the Northeast, senators sought and won a lighter levy on heating oil under the president's new energy tax. From the Midwest, farm-state senators got a tax exemption for grain-based ethanol.

In his State of the Union speech, Clinton proposed to phase out nuclear-power research, but his Energy Department has backed off the idea. As a candidate, Clinton called for raising auto-fuel-efficiency standards to forty miles per gallon by 2000. But Carol Browner, his Environmental Protection Agency administrator, journeyed to Detroit for a meeting with the Big Three auto executives at which she promised to consider alternatives to such standards.

During two campaign visits to Ohio, Al Gore promised local activists that a Clinton administration would block operation of a new toxic-waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, because its fumes threaten a nearby elementary school and residences. The Clinton White House danced away from Gore's pledge, and despite continuing protests, the EPA refused to block the incinerator's operating permit.

Is there a pattern in these episodes? "Yeah," cracks one White House staffer, "the pattern is that Bill Clinton is not Al Gore, and this is not the green millennium."

The other pattern, of course, might be described as politics as usual. No president can possibly get his way without some horse-trading, but did Clinton really need to cave in to Max Baucus? If he yields so quickly on grazing rights, what'll he be like when the really brutal infighting gets under way on taxes and budget cuts?

The rap on Clinton, both as Arkansas governor and presidential candidate, was that he was too disposed to accommodate opposition —– eagerly avoiding conflict by yielding on the nettlesome details of governance. Washington players are naturally alert to signs of the same behavior. "The question is: Does he have the sturdiness of character to hew to a line when things get hard?" asks Stephen Bell, a Republican veteran of congressional struggles. "There are doubts."

White House staffers dismiss these worries as misplaced, but they grant that an aura of weakness could threaten Clinton, even if it is a misperception. The White House set out ostentatiously to punish Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama for his negative comments and votes on the economic plan –— shifting nearly a hundred federal jobs from Alabama to elsewhere. Staffers are searching for other ways to exercise concrete discipline on uncooperative legislators in both parties.

"We're trying to make a distinction between the big things where you don't go against us and the other things where we are willing to compromise," an aide explains. "Three weeks ago, everyone was saying we were weak and could be pushed. Now, we're being denounced as Nixonian. That's progress."

Is Clinton really willing to be Nixonian? This question of style is likely to dog Clinton, partly because it is attached to his character. He seems acutely sensitive to the powers that be, anxious for the approval of important personages in government and in business. Yet Clinton also identifies with the less fortunate, especially those working people whose livelihoods are under so much pressure.

The question of style also reflects the confusion that is implicit in his governing posture. Does Clinton wish to be the outsider who forces Washington to reform, or the masterful insider who collaborates with the status quo to accomplish some things? The problem is, Clinton wants not to have to choose.

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Clinton's lack of forceful definition is nowhere more painfully evident than in his economic program. He ran for office and won by relentlessly focusing the debate on jobs, jobs, jobs. But once elected, he maneuvered to a very different priority —– a five-year plan designed to shrink the deficit by half. As a candidate, Clinton argued effectively that deficit reduction was not the be-all and end-all of economic policy. As president, he has put deficit reduction at the center of his program.

The debate is now focused almost entirely on the question of whether Clinton can actually deliver on his deficit goals, never mind what happens to the real economy of jobs and wages. Thus, in his effort to impress and appease the governing elites, Clinton has allowed himself to be co-opted by their conventional wisdom.

In the public's mind, deficit reduction is being driven by Ross Perot and his supporters. But before Perot came along, the deficit was the obsession of conservative economists and Wall Street financiers like Pete Peterson. These are the people Clinton seems inordinately eager to please. So he stacked up a major program of tax increases and budget cuts that would eventually trim $140 billion from the annual deficit.

But at the same time he's not quite willing to give up on candidate Clinton's promises, so he also proposed adding $16 billion to the 1993 deficit —– extra spending up front that would supposedly add vigor to the sodden and jobless recovery. This was a shade too cute. Why should Congress go in both directions at once? The apparent contradiction is too tricky to explain in the broad strokes required for debate on the national stage.

It is also not quite real. Originally, the Clinton team talked of $30 billion in stimulative spending, but when the details were made public, that had shrunk to $16 billion. And even that is illusory. According to Jeff Faux of the Economic Policy Institute, the spending for 1993 will actually amount to only about $7 billion. In a $1.5 trillion budget, $7 billion is a meaningless asterisk.

If the stimulus is too puny to have any impact, then the net effect of Clinton's program will be to dampen the economy — discouraging the faster growth essential to produce jobs and rising wages. This calculus was obvious when Clinton first announced his plan in February, but its relevance has now been nearly lost in the posturing over who is the more zealous budget cutter, Congress or the White House.

If the economy is not growing, if wages and business profits are not increasing robustly, then tax revenues will fall far short of the president's elaborate projections. A year from now, it is quite possible –— even likely —– that Clinton will find himself stuck with the worst of both worlds: deficits that remain stubbornly high despite tax increases and budget cutting and an economy that still fails to deliver what he promised the folks —– real jobs.

Bad economics is bad politics. I suspect that Republican leaders understand Clinton's dilemma in much the same terms I'm describing. Notwithstanding their pious speeches on pork-barrel spending and fiscal responsibility, the GOP has already begun the run-up to 1996, preparing the case that Clinton somehow screwed the economy with tax-and-spend politics. Their logic will be tortuously misleading, but so what.

Clinton's approval ratings are weakening, as the first blush of presidential newness recedes. Yet ironically, the White House's own polling suggests that the public likes the job-creating stimulus elements in Clinton's plan far more than the deficit reduction. In other words, what people like most about Clinton is the stuff he isn't doing enough of.

"Clinton's taken seven shades of hell on the little things –— a chicken-shit little $16 billion," says Steve Bell. "He might not have taken any more hell if he'd asked for $60 billion. If he had taken a stronger position, he might have galvanized the public. The people were ready for that —– big change, jobs. It's an irony: Instead of being too bold, he was too timid."

That avenue is not yet entirely closed off. Clinton can escape from the strategic box he's in by beginning to lay the predicate for a different direction. While he must play out the hand he's dealt himself for this season, events may compel him to rethink the economic strategy. If his health-care-reform proposal excites public enthusiasm this summer, he can use his buoyed status to reopen the economic question. By the end of the year, as the 1994 elections approach, congressional enthusiasm for budget cutting may be displaced by rising nervousness over the stagnant economy. If Clinton has the guts, he will position himself now to seize that opening and offer a new game plan that really does concentrate on the issue that elected him —– jobs, jobs, jobs.

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In the meantime, Clinton is handicapped by a most unnatural political setting: The usually aggressive liberals in his own party are keeping their mouths shut, while an assortment of conservatives make all the obstreperous noises. This imbalance skews the debate rightward and pulls Clinton in directions he doesn't want to go. A president who came to power from the center-right wing of the Democratic party finds himself repeatedly stung by his putative friends, Southern conservatives, while his solid base of support is provided by the liberals, who were supposed to be his critics.

Senator Sam Nunn sticks Clinton on defense spending and gays in the military. Senators John Breaux of Louisiana and David Boren of Oklahoma propose to eviscerate his weak stimulus package even further. Thanks to Nunn and other conservatives, the debate on reducing the defense budget has become so distorted that Clinton is now depicted as the radical, even though his five-year plan would keep the United States fully mobilized for World War III. Meanwhile, liberals like Teddy Kennedy of Massachusetts and Paul Sarbanes of Maryland bite their tongues and fully endorse the president's economic package, despite misgivings about its direction.

This odd configuration evokes memories of the last failed Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, another moderate Southerner. Liberal Democrats heavily damaged Carter with their constant criticism of his program; the eventual result was Ronald Reagan and twelve years of right-wing government. The libs are determined not to do the same thing to Clinton. Organized labor, which regularly terrorized Carter, has adopted the stance of genial pussycat. If this Democratic president fails, the liberal core of his party does not want the blame.

Ultimately, however, their silence does not help Clinton. It merely shrinks his options. In legislative politics, power flows to the margins –— the handful of swing votes that may switch sides and therefore can demand special consideration. The half-dozen moderate Republicans in the Senate are potentially powerful for this reason. Because they are the swing votes needed to break a GOP filibuster, they can deal influentially with the Democratic White House on virtually every issue.

"It's important that liberals maintain a useful tension with the administration," says David Cohen, a public-interest lobbyist with the Advocacy Institute. "That does not mean you're breaking with the administration or you want to bring them down. It's about broadening the public debate. Sitting still cedes territory to the opposition. By ending the silence, you're actually making more space for the president, even if it won't be appreciated or fully understood by the White House."

In the end, however, Clinton needs to make his own space –— to rethink his political strategy and to stiffen his own resolve. Otherwise, he's liable to be nibbled alive.