Posted on December 20, 1993 in Washington Watch

As 1993 draws to a close, the White House and the Democratic Party have been faxing daily memos and reports to the press and political analysts trumpeting the Administration’s successful first year in office.

Despite early setbacks, the President has, in fact, recorded an impressive set of legislative victories and initiatives. There are in all of the flurry of activity, some ironies to be found and some observations that are worth making at this point.

First of all, the claims of success in the daily faxes are absolutely justified. In the words of Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, Clinton’s first year has been “the most productive first year of any President since Eisenhower’s first term. It’s a remarkable record, and the most striking thing about the American political scene now is that hardly any American knows or believes it.”

In addition to the very high profile battles over the budget, enhanced budget cuts, NAFTA, and the economic stimulus package, which were all close votes with Clinton winning all but the last, there were quite a number of other pieces of legislation that helped to define the Administration’s first year.

After languishing for ten years in the Congress and being vetoed by President Bush, the Family and Medical Leave Act was signed into law this year. As he promised in the campaign, Clinton worked with the Congress to enact this piece of legislation, which guarantees that workers will be able to keep their jobs while taking time off to care for relatives suffering from serious illnesses. Clinton also kept his promise to reverse President Bush’s so-called “gag order” against any discussion of abortion in federally funded family planning clinics.

The President also worked quickly with allies on Capitol Hill to pass the “Motor Voter” bill that eases regulations for voter registration, in many cases allowing people to register to vote as the get or renew their driver’s licenses. Another high profile achievement of the Administration was the passage and signing into law of the Brady bill, another bill that was vetoed by President Bush. Although only a mild step toward reform of the nation’s laws regulating guns, the Brady bill is the first piece of national legislation on this issue since the Firearms Control Act of 1968.

Lost in the shuffle of the high profile battles mentioned above and those over various fiscal and budgetary matters, were two other significant pieces of legislation. The Administration began to put its strategy for young Americans into place with the passage of the National and Community Service Act and a bill reforming and simplifying the government’s student loan program. The National and Community Service Act will, over the next five years, provide money for college for 100,000 young people in exchange for two years of community service. And the reform of the federal student loan program will provide more money for student loans for the first time in twelve years while saving later collection costs.

Polls done at the time and since have shown that all of these action meet with public approval which, with the exception of the reversal of the “gag rule” on abortion counseling, is overwhelming.

Another measure of Clinton’s success is that he has had to veto a single bill since taking office – a feat achieved by a first-year President only two other times in the last sixty years. This is in part a measure of Clinton’s good relations with the Congress despite some early setbacks, but it is also a function of how his agenda has dominated activity on Capital Hill. Because in addition to the victories mentioned above, and the several budget-related matters that have consumed a great deal of time, the Congress is also working on Clinton’s proposals on ethics and campaign finance reform, the vaunted health care reform legislation, and is in conference over the President’s Anti-Crime bill.

The second point worth noting is that this complex set of initiatives is helping to define Clinton’s standing as a “new Democrat.” Although he campaigned with the claim that he would be a new kind of Democrat, it has taken a year for him to show what he means.

The old Democrat image is that of a politician devoted to solving social and other problems through the government by creating programs and raising taxes. The stereotype of this old Democrat is “soft” on crime, favoring programs to deal with the root causes of crime over building more prisons and stiffening sentences. The old Democrat also habitually sides with organized labor over business interests, which translates into a strong protectionist stance on trade issues.

But over the past twelve years, as U.S. politics has drifted slowly to the right, the old Democrat image fell out of favor with some Democrats, who felt that a more pro-business, tough-on-crime and anti-tax position would be better for the party. Although this was always a latent tension in the party, over the past decade it has become an institutionalized division between the liberal “left” and conservative “right” wings of the Democratic Party.

Clinton’s new Democrat label means a blending of the two approaches. He has moved to the center of American politics, agreeing with the Democratic left on some issues and the right on others.

The Family and Medical Leave Act and the Brady bill were broadly supported by the liberals and passed with overwhelming Democratic support in both houses. His budget bill and the recent fight over further deficit reductions was a more mixed affair, with members of Congress from both wings of both parties finding reasons to vote for and against both proposals. But on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and on the Anti-Crime package in-waiting, Clinton relied on some support from conservative Democrats and got the majority of his support from Republicans.

As I’ve mentioned in this space before, Clinton has put his coalitions together on an issue-by-issue basis. There have been very few members of Congress who have voted for even a majority of Clinton’s agenda, much less all of it. Of particular concern to some is that the Administration’s agenda is not specifically geared to attract Democratic support in some cases, and they worry that he seems so willing to look to the Republicans for allies, as he did over NAFTA.

So the questions are: is the President shaping a new coalition? And if so, will it last? To this point, the evidence on both questions is mixed.

The place Clinton has moved, from what is discernable of his overall philosophy, is not virgin soil. There are a number of Republicans, including the governors of Massachusetts and California, who describe themselves and their policies and fiscally conservative but socially liberal. Such a label would also seem to fit Clinton.

But these Republican governors have run into problems similar to Clinton’s: by relying on members of the other party to get parts of their agenda passed, they alienate the true believers in their own party. This is something that has definitely happened to Clinton.

Organized labor has been withholding its usual monetary support for the Democratic Party due to its anger over Clinton’s pro-NAFTA stance. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) has clashed with Clinton several times this year, with even more bitter conflicts on the horizon. And Jesse Jackson, who is still the leading spokesman for the left wing of the party, has not been an ally of Clinton’s on any piece of legislation since the failed economic stimulus bill.

Clinton has won some praise from conservative Democratic leaders, though as we shall see, that branch of the party has not universally accepted the President’s agenda. Likewise, although Clinton has won kind words from even such staunch Republican fighters as Senator Bob Dole and Congressman Newt Gingrich, they have both made it clear that their alliances with Clinton over NAFTA and the Anti-Crime package have only been marriages of convenience, and they look forward to beating other Democrats in 1994 and Clinton himself in 1996.

Yet it is impossible to ignore the fact that Clinton’s legislative accomplishments coincide strongly with public sentiment, and that although he has been knocked down and declared dead more times than any observer cares to count, he has lost only one high profile battle of the many he has fought. Seemingly, however, his victories have not given him the kind of political capital that helps to build coalitions, and as yet one would be hard-pressed to name even the core of a Clinton coalition in Congress.

But his performance has not gone unnoticed by everyone. The political analyst Joe Klein noted that there is “something unusual and admirable about Clinton’s first year. He expended great gobs of political capital on issue [like] deficit reduction, free trade, etc., that will yield him no immediate gain.” The voting public has shown that it appreciates political courage (particularly when it is combined with an excellent television presence such as Clinton has).

This seems to be borne out in recent poll results that show Clinton with a positive rating of 57% compared to only 37% negative, and his performance must be the main reason the Democratic Party enjoys and positive-negative rating of 54%-32%, while the Republican Party has lower positives and higher negatives, with a favorable-unfavorable rating of 50%-39%. And when asked whether Clinton and the Democrats or the Republicans are more sincere about moving the country forward, the President and his party come out ahead by a 50% to 24% margin.

So despite all the bruises he’s endured, Clinton still comes out ahead of his two strongest potential challengers in hypothetical match-ups for 1996. He would beat Senator Dole by a margin of 50%-39%. And even against Jack Kemp, a Republican proponent of the fiscally conservative socially liberal stance, Clinton comes out ahead 49% to 36%.

This and other polling data suggests that, because he is attacking issues that the public is very concerned about, he is gaining supporters. By 1996, the President may yet succeed in forging a lasting coalition among the voters even if he fails to build one in the Congress. Or at least he is making progress in that direction. As House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich noted: “President Clinton has every reason to feel pretty good right now. In all fairness, as a partisan Republican, you have to give him pretty positive marks. He clearly came out of the year better than he went in.”

With comments like that coming from one of the harshest-tongued critics in Congress, Clinton must feel rather comfortable as he heads into the holidays and prepares for 1994. Yet, as we head into the new year, it is only appropriate to look to the future. And as far as U.S. politics is concerned, Shakespeare’s augury that “what’s past is prologue” seems very apt.

Next week’s column will focus on the Clinton agenda for 1994, and the kind of obstacles he is likely to face.

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