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COLUMN RIGHT/ JAMES P. PINKERTON : What's Next for Clinton--Bay of Bosnia? : Political vulnerability plus impatience could spell trouble.

April 29, 1993|JAMES P. PINKERTON | James P. Pinkerton is the John Locke Foundation fellow at the Manhattan Institute's Washington office.

"I would want to have a whirlwind set of early proposals to the Congress and early successes. I would want to have another one of those 100-day periods like Roosevelt did." So said Bill Clinton on Aug. 12, 1992.

So how's he doing? Two things stand out about Clinton's young presidency. First, the strength of the Republican opposition. Second, Clinton's restless energy is pushing him down the road of good intentions toward a foreign-policy quagmire.

For all the discussion about Bob Dole's motives and the unity of the Republicans, there's a simpler explanation for why the GOP opposition has been so effective: The Republicans have the greatest numbers in the Congress confronting a Democratic President since the Truman years--176 seats in the House and, more important, 43 in the Senate.

With Clinton's approval rating hovering in the low 50s, this is not the best time for the Democrats to defend a Senate seat in a special election. This Saturday, Texas voters will go to the polls to replace Lloyd Bentsen, whom Clinton appointed Treasury secretary. Special elections give voters a chance to send the White House "a message." The 1991 defeat of Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh in Pennsylvania was a shot across George Bush's bow, which the White House ignored until the voters torpedoed him the next year.

Congressional Democrats are already thinking about the 1994 midterm elections, when 34 more Senate seats, including the one held by Dianne Feinstein, are up. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Me.) knows that the Democrats must hold on to all 22 Democratic seats. Thus, if the GOP merely wins half the races, that's a net gain of five for the Republicans.

In Washington, risk is the mother of caution. The Democrats will be nervous about voting for controversial national health-care plans, trade treaties and Supreme Court nominees. Sen. Richard Shelby (D-Ala.) became a hero back home for openly bucking the Clinton White House. More typical is the quiet distancing by former presidential candidate Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.). Kerrey's home state has gone Republican in 13 of the last 14 presidential elections. Up for reelection next year, Kerrey has moved to the right, supporting the Republicans at key points during the debate over the "stimulus" package.

To avoid the "gridlock" accusation, the Republicans won't seek to block everything Clinton does. For example, they'll probably let Clinton's tax increases go through. They won't vote for them, but they won't filibuster. Why? They can use the issue next year. Bush was only the latest President to discover the unpopularity of tax increases.

So what does Clinton do in his second 100 days?

Might Clinton start down the same path as his hero, John Kennedy? Having campaigned on "getting America moving again," Kennedy also became impatient with congressional wrangling. He sought to do something. That "something" was Vietnam.

As Clinton grinds his gears at home, Bosnia is boiling. "The time has come to focus on that problem," Clinton said Monday. Bold leadership? Clinton can't order an air strike on Dole, but he can bomb the Serbs.

Coincidentally, the dedication of the Holocaust Museum in Washington has put many well-meaning Americans in a moral quandary. How can we commemorate past genocide, vowing "never again," while we do nothing about mass murder in the Balkans except watch it on TV? The Wise Men and Women atop the commanding heights of our politics and culture, such as George Shultz, Margaret Thatcher, Elie Wiesel and even Clinton's own U.N. ambassador, Madeleine Albright, are publicly uniting behind a more aggressive policy.

But there's a problem. We have an arsenal of responses--sanctions, containment, intervention--left over from the Cold War, but we've left that era. Does the domino theory apply? Are Americans supposed to worry that if Bosnia falls, Macedonia, Albania and Greece are next? In the absence of the Red Menace, do they care? Americans are isolationist by nature. Even after the Nazis attacked Poland, it took two years and Pearl Harbor to get the public mobilized for war.

Bosnian intervention may or may not be a good idea, but one thing is clear: Unless Clinton gets in and out quickly, it won't be popular. Jimmy Carter came crashing down in large part because of the protracted Iranian hostage crisis. The congressional Democrats fell almost as hard: From 1977 to 1980, the GOP gained 49 seats in the House and 15 in the Senate. An equal surge today would give Republicans the majority in both chambers.

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