Posted on December 27, 1993 in Washington Watch

After his first year in office and enduring an unending parade of bruising battles and high-profile debates, President Bill Clinton will continue to define himself in 1994 as a new Democrat through another series of legislative struggles with Congress.

The first item on the agenda for 1994 is health care reform. During the speech he used to introduce his health care proposal, the President challenged Congress to pass a comprehensive health care reform plan by the end of 1994. As Clinton has already moved the legislation to Capitol Hill, it is up to the Congress now to pass it.

Of course, at every step along the way, there will be attempts to alter the Clinton proposal to suit various special interests, and the Administration is prepared to monitor the entire process very closely, and to apply pressure where they feel it’s needed. Even as 1993 draws to a close, Clinton is meeting with doctors groups and other health care providers, and preparing the grass roots network he will need to lobby the Congress on this issue.

In this battle, Clinton will need to bring together traditional Democratic allies, the old Democratic coalition of organized labor and minorities. And this may be difficult.

Organized labor is still angry over the passage of NAFTA, and is trying to balance its need to support health care reform with its desire to show the President that he can’t take labor support for granted. The African American leadership is unhappy with Clinton over the orientation of his anti-crime package, and wary of his upcoming welfare reform proposal. Although both groups are traditional Democratic allies, and there are few Republicans who will champion their causes, they can be expected to extract the maximum amount of concessions from Clinton before health care finally comes to a vote next fall.

There is no disagreement over the fact that having more than 38 million Americans without health care is a serious problem, but there is plenty of disagreement over how to fix it. Traditional Republicans are in favor of very limited government involvement and universal access to coverage; while traditional Democrats are in favor of large-scale government involvement to guarantee universal coverage. Between these two groups, Clinton will be trying to form a consensus that includes as many of the traditional Democrats as possible.

But even as he appeases the elements on the Democratic left, Clinton will have to work to avoid antagonizing the more conservative elements in his own party and the moderate Republicans because he will need votes from both groups to get his proposal passed. And, he is going to need to the votes of these groups to pass the other two major pieces of legislation the Administration will propose this year: welfare reform and the anti-crime package.

President Clinton held off from announcing the details of his welfare reform proposal at the end of this year because his political advisors warned him that some elements of it would cause a controversy which could endanger his health care reform plan. So he announced merely the simple principles of his plan. But even the way he articulated the principles stirred the political waters.

One of Clinton’s most successful television advertisements during the 1992 campaign was the one in which he promised “to end welfare as we know it,” and to “make welfare a second chance, not a way of life.” As he enters the second year of his presidency, the President has reaffirmed those principles. As with health care, there is broad agreement that the welfare system needs to be fixed and that Clinton’s principles are sound; but as soon as he moves beyond that point of agreement there will be a firestorm of criticism from the Democratic left.

Because the debate over welfare reform will be running concurrent to the health care reform debate, Clinton will have maneuver carefully to make certain that in putting together his coalition to pass the one, he doesn’t alienate the coalition he will need to pass the other. And even as he balances these two difficult issues, Clinton will face an even more daunting task when the Congress begins to finalize the anti-crime package.

Even more than health care and welfare reform, there is a strong national consensus that the crime problem must be dealt with. Recent polls show that Americans rank crime and violence as their number one concern, and the President’s anti-crime package – with its emphasis on building more jails, hiring more police and stiffening penalties – seems to be in line with the majority of the country.

But Clinton’s proposal is not at all in line with the majority of his own party. As one Democratic activist complained to me, “Have you seen the President’s crime bill? It’s a Republican crime bill!”

That comment illuminates one of the most important dynamics to emerge in 1993: the fraying of the Democratic coalition.

Although the traditional Democratic alliance of labor, intellectuals and minorities was to some degree cobbled together by Clinton in 1992, his policies since then have re-exposed the rifts that for years have been a source of friction within the party. His new Democratic agenda has pleased neither the liberals nor conservatives, and both are threatening to abandon him.

At the beginning of December, Clinton went back to speak at the conference of a group he helped found – the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). The DLC is committed to moving the Democratic party away from the liberal views it used to espouse and back toward a more centrist agenda. During his tenure as its chairman, Clinton helped to firmly established the DLC as a major player in Democratic party politics.

But the new DLC chairman, Congressman Dave McCurdy, at the conference put the Administration “on notice” that the DLC “will pressure the White House to a New Democrat agenda.” McCurdy said that the DLC will “fight to those who would water down our agenda.” The President tried to be conciliatory at the meeting, and many members of the DLC seemed willing to try to work with him when possible and agree to disagree at other times. But McCurdy and others who insist upon a strictly conservative social and economic agenda may be at odds with Clinton for the next three years, because neither side seems willing to “water down” its positions.

It is uncertain how serious this breach is, but with the Democrats’ slim majority in Congress likely to get even smaller after the 1994 mid-term elections, Clinton will want any rift with the DLC to be a small as possible.

But, as in so many other cases, the President is here, too, caught between two extremes. Even as he tries to reach out to the DLC, he is encountering criticism from the liberal wing of the Democratic party, especially from its chief spokesman, Jesse Jackson, and from the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), which now numbers 39 Democrats.

Jackson and the CBC opposed NAFTA. They want a much more liberal health care reform proposal than the Administration has put forward, and they oppose Clinton’s centrist stands on welfare reform and crime. Every move that Clinton makes to appease the DLC alienates this block of liberal African American Democrats.

While Jackson is in open rebellion against the President, even threatening to run an independent Presidential campaign (which would siphon liberal support from Clinton in much the way that Ross Perot’s independent run hurt George Bush), the CBC is threatening to withhold critical support and Democratic votes for the President’s proposed legislation. And with the votes on all his major initiatives expected to be close, the President cannot afford to write off these 39 votes.

All this points to a problem: liberals, and especially African Americans, feel abandoned by the Democratic President they played a crucial role in helping to elect (95% of the African American vote went to Clinton in 1992). It is ironic that even as the 1992 elections provided the CBC with its largest number of members in history, the political climate left the traditional positions of the CBC as weak as they’ve been in recent history. And the CBC’s members will be holding meetings throughout the winter recess, attempting to plot a strategy for 1994 that emphasizes their strength and seeks to halt what it perceives as the centrist drift of the Administration.

So, as Clinton faces Congress in 1994, he comes forward with legislation that most Americans want to see passed. But passing it will not be easy because significant segments of his own party will pull and push in opposite directions to shape the legislation to meet their ideological beliefs. Clinton will not find it easy to be a winning New Democrat in 1994.

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