Posted on November 16, 1992 in Washington Watch

This week President-elect Bill Clinton makes his first post-election visit to Washington to meet with the congressional leadership. His priority will be to solidify his ties with the legislative branch and build amicable working relationships, which he will need to get his initial proposals through Congress in a timely manner.

Clinton’s relationship with the Congress has not always been a close one. At times during the early part of the campaign he targeted Congress as a part of the problems in Washington. As a long-time governor, however, Clinton knows full well that he will need a good rapport with the legislature if he is to achieve his goals.

The President-elect’s ideas have sometimes been more conservative than those endorsed by the liberal wing of the Democratic party, as represented by its congressional leadership. If his balanced approach to economic and political reform is to succeed—without excessive congressional tampering—he will have to work early to build a cooperative and mutually respectful relationship with the Congress.

Two factors deserve scrutiny here. The first is that Clinton is a “new” Democrat. The second is that the congress, even with its old leadership intact, is also quite new.

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Clinton: A “New” Democrat

In the final weeks before the election Bill Clinton’s campaign message had been honed down to two central themes: hope for change and responsibility of citizens to help bring that change about.

The first of these themes, hope, is part of the traditional Democratic message. It promises that help will be on the way in the form of government activity, including regulation and spending. It is based on the theory that government can act as a positive force for change in society.

The second theme helped to establish Clinton’s credentials as a “New” Democrat. It is to somewhat dampen the hope that government will do everything by insisting that citizens must also act.

“Old” Democrats, by using the first theme without the accompanying theme of personal responsibility, often provoked the criticism from Republicans that the party’s entire agenda was based on excessive government control in the form of taxation, spending and regulations that served to strangle business. By adding this second theme Clinton makes the argument that government acting alone cannot produce change, but that individuals must also bear their share of the work.

These two themes are reminiscent of the line from President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, “Ask not for what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” In this sense, then, it seems logical that Clinton was the Democrat who brought back together two long-estranged elements of the old Kennedy coalition of working class whites and African Americans. Clinton promised a government that will act—but not so pervasively as the Johnson Administration did. While this strategy worked to produce a victory, the battle within the Democratic coalition is not over yet.

Already, however, various and sundry interest groups have made pronouncements about the policies they’d like to see adopted in the first one hundred days of the new Administration, as well as checklists of the personnel they’d like to see enacting those policies. These groups will pay special attention to the actions taken during the new Administration’s first 100 days in office, since they are often a sign of a new president’s top priorities.

In the first week after the election, two conflicting events took place.

In Washington, Jesse Jackson—who is clearly a leader representing the more traditional liberal wing of the Democratic agenda—organized a presentation to Clinton’s campaign manager David Wilhelm. At the meeting were a wide cross-section of traditional Democratic interest groups, including consumer activist Ralph Nader; Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women; a number of prominent labor union leaders; several of the newly-elected African American and Latino members of Congress; and mayors from across the United States. Each group pointed out how its vote was critical in creating a Democratic majority and presented its agenda for the Clinton Administration’s first one hundred days. Jackson summarized the discussion by presenting Clinton’s campaign manager with a lengthy list of proposals the groups wanted to see immediately enacted.

Meanwhile, in Little Rock, Arkansas, Clinton advisors spent the week sending out the message that change will come slowly, and that only a very few proposals will actually make Clinton’s agenda for his first 100 days in office. In part, this message was nothing more than pragmatism: of course there are only a few things that can be accomplished in a short amount of time. But the stronger part of the message seemed to be deliberate attempt to lower people’s expectations, and the two key elements of the transition effort attest to this.

First, the development of policy options has been very slow. Clinton has given the top priority to the development of economic policy (both domestic and international), and has made the call for a national summit of economic leaders from all over the country to meet in Little Rock. However, this meeting cannot take place until key economic personnel appointments have been made. Such a meeting will not take place before the middle of December, and economic policy will not begin to be set down until after that meeting.

Secondly, Clinton has been very slow in announcing his transition appointments. Even though the process sped up by the end of the week, the clear message from Little Rock is that only top appointments will be made by January, with the rest of the appointments being made a number of months after the inauguration.

The first two weeks have shown Clinton to be quite cautious. He raised hopes and expectations, but he seems quite determined to lower those same expectations by his deliberative style of government.

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Congress

The turnover in Congress was less than expected by the larger estimates. By election day, most incumbents had pulled even with or slightly ahead of their challengers. The total turnover was 112 Representatives and eleven Senators, with the possibility of a twelfth if former Peace Corps Director Paul Coverdell manages to beat Senator Wyche Fowler in the Georgia runoff election in early December. Still, by the standards of prior elections, turnover is higher than any election since 1948.

Several key leaders in the House of Representatives won by very narrow margins. This should limit their leadership roles as they work to reassure voters that they are concerned about issues back home and have less time to spend on power plays. Also, both parties are somewhat hesitant about granting significant responsibilities to members they fear may not be returning in two years.

For example Sam Gejdenson, a Democrat from Connecticut who won with just 51% of the vote on election day. Gejdenson is the second ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and is in line to succeed chairman Lee Hamilton if Hamilton were to receive an appointment in the Clinton Administration. However, given his slim margin of victory in the elections, Gejdenson is probably more likely to seek a choice committee assignment, such as Ways and Means, than the chairmanship of Foreign Affairs.

There were no major challenges to either party’s leadership due in part to the need for cohesion in both party caucuses. They will need all the strength they can get if they hope to guide the incoming freshman representatives along a chosen path. Several members of the Democratic leadership went on a national tour this week in order to meet as many new representatives as possible before they are sworn in in January. The trip gave the leaders a chance to realize that these new members are not wild-eyed at the prospect of heading to Capitol Hill. In fact, more than 72 percent of them have prior experience in elected office, which is slightly higher than the figure for the returnees.

But this new class won election on an agenda of reform, and they are expected to push hard for it. They have expressed a willingness to cooperate with the House leadership, but they have their price. They want to see reform in the way the Congress operates, as well as in the way it campaigns. They want to end the gridlock of the last twelve years and streamline the process of getting legislation passed. And finally, they want good committee assignments to assure that their agenda gets through. If these conditions are not met, there may be more than one serious challenge to House leaders.

One obstacle to the newcomers achieving their goals is the simple fact that they don’t share the same priorities. According to a recent poll, 52 percent of the new members who are Democrats rank a jobs creation program as their top priority, while only 19 percent of the new Republicans feel the same way. Health care reform, which was one of the three top issues in almost every race this year, is ranked by 57 percent of the new Democrats as their second highest priority; but the 52 percent of the new Republicans see congressional reform as their top priority. Even on the issue of congressional reform, there is no agreement, with 54 percent of the Democrats seeing campaign reform as the most important while 68 percent of the Republicans would like to enact term limits.

Possible contention among the new members, who constitute one quarter of the total House, will bring a certain level of disorganization. This will be matched by the juggling of committee posts among the senior members, as they vie against one another for the choicest jobs. This could get serious, especially if Clinton selects members of the House leadership to fill his cabinet. Sam Gejdenson’s position on the Foreign Affairs committee is one example, and a fairly simple one.

Another example, which is much more complex, would come about if Clinton were to appoint Les Aspin to his cabinet. Ronald Dellums from California is next in line for chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee after Aspin; but there would be strong opposition his taking the post because he has been generally critical of the military throughout his career, and also because he is one of the more left-leaning members of Congress. Behind him in seniority, however, is Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, another leading liberal and ardent critic of the military who would also be opposed by some because of her views concerning the role of women in the military.

Another key factor in the newly constituted House of Representatives may be the fact that African Americans, Latinos, Asians and women—groups which are generally seen to lean toward a different and more liberal agenda than that of the rest of the Congress, i.e., white men—will be 23 percent of the membership. Moreover, because most of them are Democrats, they will make up almost half of the Democratic Party caucus. If they act as a group, even on one or two issues, they could very nearly determine the outcome.

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And so as Clinton comes to Washington, the face-off will be fascinating to watch: a “New” (i.e., more conservative) Democratic President meets a “new” (i.e., more liberal and reform-minded) and somewhat disorganized Congress.

The hope of both will be to end “gridlock” in government and make some immediate progress in economic and political reform. These early pre-inauguration meetings may provide some insight into how cooperative the relationship will be between the two branches of government.

NOTE: Next week’s column will present some biographical information on new faces in the Clinton transition team.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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