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Clinton's Fatal Mistake: Underestimating the Power of Bob Dole : Politics: While the President focused on other issues, the Senate minority leader was able to frame the debate on the jobs bill--and present it as 'pork.'

April 25, 1993|John Ellis | John Ellis, a consultant, is a former political analyst and producer for the NBC News election unit

BOSTON — The first clear indication that Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) had President Bill Clinton's "economic stimulus plan" on the ropes came the day after Easter Sunday, at the tradi tional White House Easter Egg Hunt. Clinton summoned the press to the Oval Office to lambaste Dole and his motley crew for their filibuster of the $16.3-billion legislation.

Outside his office, children searched for painted eggs. According to Clinton, those children were "hostages" of the GOP, because tucked away in the "stimulus" bill were funds for child immunization. "When I go out there on the lawn and I think about those kids picking up Easter eggs," said Clinton, "I want to be able to think about them all being immunized."

Whenever the Clinton White House is having a hard time explaining itself, and the scribes are rolling their eyes as the President speaks, "the children" are often introduced as the compelling moral reason for whatever proposal or scheme needs a quick rationale to carry it through the next news cycle. It was hardly surprising then that as the President's economic-stimulus package staggered toward its demise, the White House sought to recast the issue as Clinton, defender of the little children, vs. Dole, hardhearted hatchet man from Inside the Beltway.

Children or no children, the package collapsed Wednesday in the face of Dole's unbreakable Republican filibuster. It was a clean kill for the Kansas senator. The White House was forced to accept a revised $4-billion bill that extended unemployment benefits. Total surrender.

The White House legislative defeat was as embarrassing as it was complete. With a comfortable Democratic majority in the Senate and an even larger margin in the House, an important part of the Clinton grand economic strategy had, nonetheless, gone down in flames, just 90 days into the Administration. Worse, there were few, if any, of Clinton's Democratic allies on Capitol Hill who seemed upset. "We need to move on to something else," said Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.).

The plan's demise was the result of dubious economics, self-important politics, partisan tactics and poor execution. White House political operatives, often portrayed as the new wizards of Washington, were arrogant in their assessment of the situation. And they underestimated the character of the man across the table. Underestimating Dole is a mistake professional politicians should never make.

Start at the beginning. Both Clinton and Dole, as leaders of their respective parties, understand that the struggle over the next four years is for the hearts and minds of the 19% of the electorate who voted for Ross Perot. Win them and the winner gets the White House in 1996.

At the outset, the Clinton "economic stimulus plan" was the opening gambit in an overall political strategy to consolidate the President's tenuous political position. The package was aimed at the Democratic Party base (minorities-urbanites-labor-liberals) and was advertised as a "jobs" program. Its passage would have coincided with the economic recovery that had started gathering steam during the last months of the Bush Administration. It would have enabled the Clinton Administration to take credit for an economic resurgence that would, by itself, yield a high political return.

After consolidating the party base and "securing" the recovery, Clintonites could turn their attention to "fixing" the deficit, the key issue for Perot voters and one that promised some return in the precincts of moderate Republicans.

The White House strategy seemed reasonable--at the time. After Clinton's strong performance during his State of the Union message, poll data looked favorable, the Hill seemed agreeable, the opinion elites receptive to the new President's direction. White House operatives were pleased with Clinton's strong position. After a stumbling start, they had recaptured control of the agenda.

Or so they thought. Actually, the decision to put the "stimulus" package ahead of deficit reduction on the legislative agenda doomed the plan. Congress was skittish about anything carrying a "spending" label, because of the extraordinary breadth of Perot's support. As one congressman said, "Twenty percent of the country voted for a fruitcake because of the deficit issue. That's a political fact I ignore at my peril."

It was a fact Dole knew in his bones. Shut out by parliamentary procedures from any serious play on the deficit-reduction part of Clinton's package, Dole locked onto the "stimulus" package like a cruise missile. In the wake of George Bush's defeat, Republicans were reeling toward irrelevance. Dole needed a win--and quickly--to rally the troops, check the growing perception of a Clinton juggernaut and get the GOP back in the thick of things. When Clinton agreed to go with "stimulus" first and itemized deficit-reduction pain later, it gave Dole his opening.

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