Posted on June 07, 1993 in Washington Watch

May was a terrible month for President Bill Clinton. Even with the narrow victory of his economic program in the House of Representatives, the events of the last two weeks of the month left the new Clinton presidency in disarray.

The abrupt change of policy in Bosnia, the revolt of moderate Democrats against the President’s proposed BTU tax, the mishandled firings of the White House Travel Office, the embarrassing $200 haircut at the Los Angeles airport, and the relentless hounding of his Justice Department nominee Lani Guinier —all these things combined to produce a constant stream of negative stories across the nation. And with each new negative story the press pundits and analysts pounded another nail into the coffin of Clinton’s leadership and credibility.

In all this, the President’s message was lost and drowned out. He was unable to communicate his themes or build momentum for his programs. Instead, his White House staff had all it could handle in reacting to hostile questions from a clearly antagonistic press. At one day’s press briefing, for example, White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers received 178 questions about the President’s $200 haircut.

Early in the Clinton Administration, the White House pushed the White House press corps aside, convinced that it could get its message out over the heads of those reporters and directly to the people as it did during the campaign. Since the middle of May, however, the White House press corps has been getting its revenge.

As I wrote several months ago, Clinton’s strategy would work only so long as he was creating the news and forcing the media to ask questions that it had already placed on the public agenda. Yet, this was the same media which excoriated George Bush throughout the 1992 campaign. I warned that Clinton would pay a price for losing control of the national debate—and in the past few weeks he has.

But the fault does not lie with the press alone. In each case the White House has contributed significantly to its own troubles by changing its story; by not responding quickly enough and letting its critics get a one or two day head-start in the debate; or by not being fully responsive to difficult questions when asked—and thereby allowing what would have been a one day news story to run for two or three days as new “facts” are unearthed.

And what is most troublesome to the White House and to the image of the President has been that each of these stories were treated not as little individual problems, but as symptoms of a larger problem: that there are character flaws in the White House. “The White House staff is too young, too arrogant, too inexperienced to handle problems;” or “The President isn’t a moderate Democrat in touch with real people and real problems, but is in fact a tax-and-spend, Hollywood star-struck liberal;” or “The President is indecisive and lacking real leadership qualities.”

These were the things being said and these were the problems that Clinton faced by the month’s end.

The 219-213 victory in the House came as little consolation. Instead of showing strength, it revealed a President unable to control the moderates in his own party. With a 256-178 Democrat-Republican edge in the Congress, Clinton should have been able to win a more decisive victory—but opponents of his BTU tax cost him 38 Democratic votes. Even the votes he won came at an enormous cost in prestige. The President had to promise an extension of agricultural subsidies to win a few farm state Democrats, new curbs on tobacco and peanut imports for a few Southern Democrats, and even personal golf matches with three other Democrats to win their votes.

Winning in the House isn’t nearly the end of the President’s battle, however. In his weakened state, he must move on to the Senate where the going will be even more difficult. At least ten Democratic Senators appear to be opposed to the BTU tax, including four members of the influential Finance Committee. Failure to win the vote in the Finance Committee (where the Democrats hold only and 11-9 edge) will doom the President’s program.

The BTU tax is central to Clinton’s effort to hold the line on spending cuts while raising sufficient revenues to help trim the deficit. But moderate Democrats and some moderate Republicans have united in support of an alternative approach that would eliminate the BTU tax (replacing only part of its revenues by a smaller raise in the gasoline tax), and then cut the deficit with more spending cuts—including some limits in the Medicare and Social Security budgets.

Both of these option are difficult for Clinton to accept. He had opted for the BTU tax, i.e., a VAT (value-added) tax on energy at its source because it would have been a less visible tax, and Clinton fears a political backlash directed by the powerful lobbies for Medicare and Social Security if the benefits of either program are cut or even frozen at current levels.

And if that’s not bad enough, it’s really just the beginning of Clinton troubles as he enters the month of June. In an effort to reconstruct his image and restore his standing in the moderate center of American politics, Clinton began a new campaign.

First, he appointed David Gergen as a top White House advisor specializing in communications. Gergen, a former Nixon and Reagan staffer, is a respected moderate political commentator. His appointment is part of an effort to win back the White House press corps, and to restore a moderate image to the Clinton Administration. While it may yet work—it has been scorned as a “political ploy” by Republicans and has angered many Democrats.

A New York Times editorial said that Gergen is best remembered for his work during the Reagan Administration when he was a “promoter of qualities that eroded social compassion, spread suffering among the most undefended” and “pulled back from civil rights.”

Leading Democrats worried that the appointment undercut their party by creating the impression that only a Republican could save the day for the President—the leader of the Democratic Party. And some in the White House staff were reported to be depressed and in fear of losing their jobs.

Two days later Clinton traveled to Milwaukee for one of his famous campaign-style appearances. Again, the theme was his commitment to centrist policies. He went shopping at a pharmacy to restore his image as in touch with people, and in one of his speeches he mentioned “the middle class” ten times. He spoke so often about reforming welfare programs (a favorite Republican topic) that one former Clinton campaign aide remarked, “You can measure the depths of Clinton’s problems by how many times he says `welfare reform’ in an effort to win back the moderates.”

But this didn’t sit well with the press. Many reports questioned the sincerity of Clinton’s “new image”, and one respected analyst noted that “escaping Washington is not how the President can restore his leadership—his problems are in Washington, not in Milwaukee.”

Finally, in what was the most dramatic action of the week, the President withdrew the nomination of his long-time friend Lani Guinier to be in charge of civil rights in the Justice Department.

He belatedly had given Guinier strong support in response to significant opposition from Republicans and major Jewish groups which regarded Guinier’s positions as favoring racial quotas and going too far in protecting minority rights. The several day head-start that her critics had would have certainly made her confirmation fight in the Senate a difficult battle for Clinton. Such a battle would have been divisive and would have distracted from his economic program. Moreover, it would have cost him support from moderate and conservative Southern Democratic Senators whose votes he desperately needs.

It is important to note that Clinton asserted he was not withdrawing her name specifically because of the opposition to her nomination, but because he did not embrace her views—which meant that his heart would not be in a battle to save her nomination. But while withdrawing Guinier’s nomination might have made sense in the context of Clinton’s move toward the center, it only served to touch off a massive protest from Guinier’s supporters on the liberal side of the party.

The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) was outraged. The CBC Chairman Kweisi Mfume threatened that the CBC’s 39 votes could no longer be counted on to support the President in critical House votes. Women’s groups were equally upset. They have accused the President of caving in to right-wing pressure.

Jesse Jackson led a press conference with several civil rights leaders, noting that while the Clinton was dropping Guinier because of her liberal writings, he had added Gergen in spite of the fact that he was an author of the conservative Reagan agenda.

In general, the Guinier episode left many with an uneasy feeling. Even those who disagreed with her writings felt unhappy with the failure of the President to stand by a friend. Bush, many recalled, had made several appointments which brought on a number of angry showdowns with hostile Democratic Senators—but he always stood by his nominees, even when it seemed clear that he would lose. There was, many recalled, a victory in that.

There is, in all of these problems that the President is experiencing, some disturbing signs which must be read.

Clinton had tried in his campaign and is trying in his presidency to bring together two divergent wings of the Democratic Party. He ran as a “New Democrat”, a fiscal conservative committed to liberal social values. It now appears that it was easier to weave these two into an attractive campaign than in forging them into a blueprint by which to govern. Moderates have been angered by his social agenda, and liberals are alienated from his fiscal programs.

As a result of the intra-party fighting, the President has to some extent lost control of a governing agenda. His leadership is eroding, and in its place, Congress is assuming a governing role. Increasingly, it is Congress that is shaping policy or Clinton’s fear of congressional reaction that is inhibiting him from taking stands on issues both foreign and domestic.

More and more, the press, and some Clinton supporters, are asking the question—“What does the President believe in?” The shaping and reshaping of the Presidential image, the perpetual compromises, and the liberal-moderate battle within Clinton himself are creating a very clouded picture of exactly what the Clinton Presidency means.

His efforts to please various sides of an argument, and the impression that he will surrender to pressure remind some of a disturbing comment he made during the campaign. In an interview with a group of high school and college students on MTV (a popular music television station watched be many of the nation’s young but very few people over 30), then-candidate Clinton was asked about his greatest flaw. He responded by saying that his biggest problem, as he saw it, was “trying to please everybody.”

It appears that in the past week the President has been attempting to do just that. Instead of gaining through his efforts to please, he has failed to win over his critics and has displeased many of his earlier allies and supporters. It’s becoming an old story—as old as Bill Clinton’s public life. First, he’s popular, then he’s down. He rises again only to suffer what many describe as a fatal blow. But throughout his political career, Clinton has always been able to bounce back.

One thing is clear: both the nation and his party want him to succeed. But in the weeks and months ahead he must seize control of his Presidency, forcefully define and promote his program, and provide a bold and independent leadership—if he wishes to regain the standing he needs in order to succeed.

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