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President's Aides Seek New Strategies for Next 2 Years

Unmet Goals Beset Clinton at Midterm. SECOND OF TWO PARTS

November 07, 1994|DAVID LAUTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — For two years, President Clinton asked voters to judge him by his ability to move legislation through Congress. His pollster, Stanley B. Greenberg, even developed a hypothesis that the ability to master Congress might be for presidents in the post-Cold War period the kind of litmus test of strength that mastering the Soviets was for presidents from Harry S. Truman through Ronald Reagan.

Now, with Clinton's legislative record swathed in bandages and Republicans poised to gain a substantial number of seats in the House and Senate on Tuesday, his aides concede that they must either develop a new definition of success or accept a verdict of failure.

For several weeks, meeting as much as possible out of the public eye, groups of top Clinton advisers have been debating the themes and initiatives they should focus on in the next two years. While the President and his aides are not expected to make many decisions before Thanksgiving, the major options are already clear.

As has been true throughout his term, Clinton faces a choice--and a division among his advisers--between an "inside" path and an "outside" one.

While he ran for the presidency as an outsider--repeatedly reminding voters that he had been a governor, not part of the "Washington crowd"--Clinton in office deliberately followed an insider strategy. The President and his aides, many of whom had served apprenticeships on Capitol Hill, were fixed on avoiding the fate of the previous Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, who badly alienated congressional Democrats and suffered accordingly.

Determined to get legislation passed, Clinton tied himself to his party's congressional leadership, tailoring his proposals ahead of time to avoid conflicts with committee and subcommittee chairmen, often at the expense of presenting clear, uncomplicated proposals to the public at large.

The strategy succeeded for the President's budget plan last year--a crucial piece of legislation that all Republican members of Congress announced long in advance they would oppose. But this year, tying Clinton's fortunes to congressional Democrats became a major problem, yielding neither public esteem nor success on the President's major initiative: health care.

Now, about to face a new Congress almost certain to be far more hostile to his proposals, at least some Clinton advisers believe the President has an opportunity to stop worrying about passing legislation and, instead, to look for bold, high-profile initiatives that can give Americans a clear idea of what he is willing to fight for. That way, they argue, he might recapture the mantle of "change" that slipped from his shoulders during months of legislative haggling.

Others, however, argue that despite widespread cynicism about government, the public still expects Congress and the President to get things done. The President must at least try to find ways of working within the system in Congress and pass legislation--even if the Republicans gain control, this group contends.

"You have to begin with the premise that a President and a Congress have to work together," White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta said in a recent interview. "I've never seen an issue that can't be worked through if there's good faith" on both sides, he said.

Clinton aides point to next month's scheduled vote on the world trade agreement, followed by tests early next year on welfare and political reform, as the areas that will indicate what the legislative climate will be.

Republicans have promised that if they gain power in Congress, they will pass reforms of lobbying laws, campaign finances and the welfare system--all areas in which Clinton has made proposals. In theory, the two parties could agree on compromises that would allow reform legislation to pass.

In practice, however, many White House aides say they doubt that the Republicans really will allow anything to pass, fearing Clinton will be able to claim credit for it.

Even Panetta, after making the case for bipartisan accommodation, said he was "skeptical" that Republican leaders--particularly Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.)--would actually agree to work with Clinton. "Once you get a taste of this sort of confrontation, sometimes it goes to your head," he said, referring to the anti-Clinton campaign tactics that Gingrich has pushed.

If the Republicans say: " 'To hell with you, we're not going to work with you,' then clearly we're looking at confrontational politics," Panetta said.

In that case, aides say, Clinton faces two major alternative strategies.

One would be to imitate Truman, who proposed policies he favored, watched while Republican legislators killed them, and then focused his 1948 presidential campaign into an attack on the "do-nothing Congress." Already, Clinton advisers have begun honing their lines for such a campaign.

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