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Things are so bad for President Clinton that even Washington columnists who ought to be his natural allies are beginning to sound like the Arkansas columnists and editorialists who have long portrayed him as a character-flawed hollow man.
But the Washington pundits don't call him "Slick Willie." Clinton probably would exult if they did. Nothing about his recent performance implies slickness.
What the nation is seeing is the worst of both worlds: Clinton's usual weaknesses of trying to please everybody, over-promising, retreating and indecision, but without any of the political finesse that once appeared to be his genius.
For once he appears to have troubles he can't readily talk his way out of. He's never failed at this level.
In its edition of Wednesday, June 9, The Washington Post provided Clinton with the Op Ed page from hell. Rush Limbaugh couldn't wait to read from it aloud on the air.
David Broder is perhaps the most highly regarded political journalist in the country, the Sinatra of the pundits. At least he is that in Washington. He once was something of a fan of Clinton, having discovered him at National Governors' Association conferences and deeming him to be perhaps the smartest and most impressive of a new breed of governors who seemed to transcend traditional ideology to emerge as consensus-building problem-solvers.
So it was significant when on the aforementioned op-ed page, Broder called Clinton's presidency a "calamity" and declared, "That this is happening to the man who will remain as president for the next 43 months is an international disaster."
So notable was the pessimistic tone of Broder's column that it lent itself to elaboration — to the fine Washington tradition of journalist interviewing journalist.
"I deliberately tried in that piece not to make predictions about the future, but to limit myself to a current assessment...," Broder said. "I'm not prepared to say whether he's recoverable. But what is worrisome is that the problems he's having right now are occurring on probably the easiest of issues for him. The economic program is less difficult than the trade and health care issues that await him."
Broder said he couldn't precisely identify Clinton's problem, though he had thought long about it. "None of this was predictable — unless it was predictable to someone a lot smarter than I am," he said.
He said that time and again he'd watched Clinton mediate disputes at governors' conferences and assume control of position papers to recommend the right language to build consensus.
He thought Clinton might use those skills to broaden the 43 percent vote that won him the presidency, maybe build a bipartisan national government. But instead, he said, Clinton has let his support erode while he pursues an agenda entirely too ambitious for a minority president.
On that same op-ed page, another left-leaning columnist, Robert Samuelson, wrote, "Clinton lies. I could put it more delicately, but that would miss the point."
Such a blunt, non-euphemistic assessment hadn't been delivered since John Robert Starr appeared in late October and startled Ted Koppel.
Worst of all, the White House appears addled by it all, without political equilibrium. The question is whether the administration gets it.
A consultant to the White House lamented last week that all the press attention is on the White House travel and a haircut instead of low interest rates, home mortgage refinancing and passage of the family medical leave and motor voter bills. But the travel office and haircuts are sidebars to the real problems of presidential strength and credibility. And it's a sign of Clinton's failings thus far that as successes he cites two bills that were passed when George Bush was president, but vetoed, and a rash of mortgage refinancings that actually started in the last year of the Bush presidency, when, according to Clinton, the nation had a failed economic policy.
Meanwhile, a common White House refrain is that their problems started when they declared war on the national press. It's true that the White House erred by plunging head-first into a war of wills with the press. It is now setting about to repair relations with enhanced access and barbecues on the South Lawn. But blaming the messenger is usually a vivid example of political excuse-making.
The two best examples of Clinton's underlying problem are the loss of control of his economic program — the concessions made to pass it by a razor-thin margin in the House of Representatives and now the total ceding of it to the Senate Finance Committee for basic revisions — and the president's general handling of the Lani Guinier affair.
On both, the Clinton administration seems to be missing the point. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen and budget director Leon Panetta are veterans of Congress. White House sources take solace in their pronouncements that five of the last six budgets presented by presidents to Congress were "dead on arrival," subject to wholesale changes. They say the situation with Clinton's budget is no different, except for the fact that the revisions may be less extensive.
The problem is that those five budgets were presented by Republican presidents to Democratic congresses. That's apples to oranges.
If voters sent one message in November, it was that they wanted a Democratic president to work with a Democratic Congress and end the so called gridlock. When Clinton loses control of his economic plan, the centerpiece of his presidency, to his own party in Congress, he can't rely on the Republican precedent. Quite the contrary, he looks weaker because at least Ronald Reagan and George Bush had the excuse of partisanship.
As for the abandonment of Lani Guinier, sources in the White House call it the president's finest moment. They say his decision was a classic case of the president's dismissing political considerations to do what he thought was right.
This is their analysis of what happened: After reading her academic writings on how to give blacks disproportionate voting power, he applied his conviction that he simply disagreed with her and made the courageous decision to withdraw her nomination to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department even though he knew it would rile blacks on one hand and look like a transparent, maybe fraudulent political move to the political center — Sister Souljah, Part Deux — to everyone else.
And that's precisely what it looked like — weakness, indecisiveness. Meantime, at least one of the president's staunchest black supporters and operatives was so angry he thought about abandoning the president.
In fact, the Lani Guinier affair illustrates Clinton's essential problem: Who is he? Who was the man who nominated her? Who was the man who abandoned her? Is the real Bill Clinton the liberal-of-the-heart who knew and admired her? Or is the real Bill Clinton the centrist who dumped her? America can't get behind a political schizophrenic.
"Say what you will about the president's foibles. I'm gonna back him up on Lani Guinier," a White House official said last week.
Can he recover?
"It's getting pretty late," Ed Rollins, the Republican expert, declared Sunday on "Meet the Press." When a president is perceived as weak and incredible, he has structural damage, he said.
Most of the optimists tend to be people who knew Clinton in Arkansas and have seen him resurrect himself time and again. Like Betsey Wright, his long-time chief of staff in Arkansas and now a Washington lobbyist. "He'll figure it out," she said. "It's not like he hasn't been through this before."
The White House has a plan.
First, David Gergen has advised Clinton to emulate Reagan to an extent by limiting his pronouncements to general principles and leaving the gritty detail to his top aides and Congress. That way, he can claim a moral and real victory if the eventual budget bill contains some kind of energy tax increase and real deficit-reduction, of which the White House remains confident.
In a way, this is the "dumbing down" of Bill Clinton. The thinking is that if he appears to know less, or to be doing less, he might be judged in broad terms, as Reagan was, rather than specific ones.
Second, the White House expects a reasonably good budget bill from Democrats in Congress because those Democrats don't want to see this Democratic president fail — in which case they might lose the White House to Republicans for another dozen years or so.
Third, the president will get chummy with the press on the assumption that to know him is to like him.
Fourth, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is more popular than her husband, will lift her political profile and seek to build consensus on the mother of all issues, health care, which the president and First Lady insist on pursuing this calendar year.
Fifth, a few more staff changes are likely.
Sixth, the president will advance welfare reform on his priority list, since it portrays him as a "new Democrat" and appeals to middle-class voters and suburbanites, who have deserted him in droves since the highlight of his generally dismal presidency — the "State of the Union speech Feb. 17.
None of that addresses the central problem, which is Clinton's perceived personal weakness and lack of credibility.
It's now well known that one of David Gergen's last columns for U.S. News and World Report before signing on to help rehabilitate Clinton was titled, "Looking for More Backbone." He was referring to his president.
To hear White House officials tell it, Clinton displayed that backbone on Lani Guinier.
He needs a better example. And the sooner the better.
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