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A Low-Cal State of the Union : Plenty of style, not much substance. Is Clinton trying to carve out some wiggle room?

January 27, 1994|JAMES P. PINKERTON | James P. Pinkerton, based in Washington, is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute

In his first State of the Union address, written in Gergenese, President Clinton on Tuesday threw a blanket of Reaganesque rhetoric over everything. Clinton speaks as easily about family and faith as the Gipper; that's one reason why he got so much farther in life than Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis. Unlike George Bush, Clinton doesn't need to say "Message: I care" to make sure people get the gist; the exclamation points in Clinton's body language reinforce his words.

However, Clinton's sweeping style obscures a much slighter substance. Clinton shows a distinct Bush-like tendency to state his good intentions and then not worry much about what happens to them. If Clinton had really wanted to focus, laser-like, on health care, the speech would have been half its 63-minute length. But Clinton had a lot of good things he wanted to put in about welfare and crime . . . and about Superfund, civil rights and reinventing government.

The most valuable resource in the White House is the President's time. It's only natural that every bureaucratic constituency wants to get a presidential pat on the back. The problem was that Clinton was so agreeable. He drifted down verbal detours from health care, the alleged centerpiece of his presidency. He patted everyone on the back for ending gridlock; he thanked his audience for "the most successful teamwork between a President and a Congress in 30 years." In fact, Clinton has been quite accommodating to Congress: He's the first Democrat in more than a century not to have vetoed anything in his first year.

It's easy to end gridlock when you cave in all the time. But consider what was intended to be the most dramatic moment of the speech, when Clinton pulled out a pen and said: "If you send me legislation that does not guarantee every American private health insurance that can never be taken away, you will force me to take this pen, veto the legislation and we'll come right back here and start all over again." The words and the prop echoed Reagan's "make my day" anti-tax line from a decade ago. Coming from Clinton, it sounds more like a pseudo-threat.

The Latin root of the word veto is "I forbid." But Clinton is not a line-in-the-sand guy. As Prof. John J. Pitney Jr. of Claremont-McKenna College puts it, as you evaluate a Clinton caveat, think of Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid, North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung and the gang of Serbian child-killers. Nothing bad has happened to them. Conversely, before you take a Clinton promise to heart, think about the disappointment of middle-class taxpayers, gay soldiers and the Haitian boat people.

Clinton's artful locutions have enabled him to preserve his political viability during personal crises ranging from accusations of marijuana smoking to his position on the Persian Gulf War. The latest example came in Tuesday's speech. Clinton said he wanted to "guarantee every American private health insurance that can never be taken away." Sounds reasonable, but the policy buzzword of choice for health-care crusaders is universal, as in "universal coverage." The U-word was missing the other night. In a speech so heavily edited, that was deliberate. Is Clinton carving out some wiggle room? Nor did Clinton cite a target date for the actual implementation of his plan. While he demanded action "now," there was no mention of when he expected his health-care plan to happen.

Does this sound like nit-picking? Put it this way: When liquor stores "card" youthful-looking customers, that too could be described as nit-picking. But it's done for a good reason.

If he were alive today, George Washington wouldn't have to show two IDs to cash a check. Clinton has not earned that level of trust.

Nobody much trusts the Republicans, at least not on health care. But the GOP has one huge advantage: They don't have to make sense of the Clinton plan. Republican responder Bob Dole's line, "The President's idea is to put a mountain of bureaucrats between you and your doctor," was the familiar conservative spiel. But Dole unveiled a powerful Perot-like visual: a huge schematic diagram of the Clinton plan. Across America, viewers had flashbacks to calculus and Krebs cycles. It's bad enough to have to learn that stuff; it's far worse to have to pay a trillion dollars for it.

If Satan is in the specifics, then the Clinton plan needs an exorcism. And what fresh hell is the "Advisory Commission on Regional Variations of Health Expenditures," anyway?

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