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Clinton Faces Cold Realities of Partisanship and Isolation : The President Talks of Feeling Out of Step With the Electorate and Out of Patience With the GOP

November 07, 1994|Ronald Brownstein

Almost two years into his presidency, on the eve of an election that is likely to produce a cold slap of repudiation, Bill Clinton says only two things about Washington have surprised him.

One sounds like a campaign talking point: "The intense partisanship of the congressional Republican leadership . . . and the fact that they haven't been punished for it in public perception," he said in an extended interview Sunday morning, stretching out his feet and sipping coffee in the presidential limousine as the San Francisco skyline receded into the fog behind him.

The other sounds more heartfelt, almost plaintive: He has also been surprised, he said, "by the difficulty of staying in some harmony with the voters. You are so far away from folks, and it is so easy in this environment, when they are just being bombarded with (negative) stuff, for them to feel like they are out of touch with you."

Clearly as Election Day finally approaches, millions of Americans feel out of harmony with Clinton. Surveying the electorate late last month, U.S. News & World Report concluded that about a fifth of the country so strongly disapproves of him that the attitude could be fairly summarized as hate. Around the country, it is common to find voters who say they believe that he has swerved to the left in office and that he deceived them in 1992 when he promised to be "a different kind of Democrat."

All of this resounds with a bitter irony that history may appreciate more than Clinton and his allies. The heart of the "New Democrat" message that Clinton rode to the White House was to bring Americans together around "third-way" ideas that surmounted the ideological polarization of the past quarter of a century. Instead, Clinton has proved to be the most polarizing President since at least Richard Nixon.

Clinton allows that missteps by his Administration have contributed to the intensely antagonistic atmosphere shaping this midterm election. "I agree that the gays-in-the-military thing contributed to it," he said. "You know, maybe (Surgeon General Joycelyn) Elders' statements about (legalizing) drugs contributed to it. . . ."

But he is defiant that, for the most part, he has fulfilled his promise to chart a centrist course. "By any rational basis, we were able to move the party to the center. If I were a Republican President who had cut the deficit more than anybody in history, reduced the government to its smallest size since (President John F.) Kennedy, passed the toughest crime bill in memory and gotten the economy going again, people would say that's an amazing record."

Why then has the country divided so profoundly about him? He points the finger across the aisle, at Republicans like House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who recently declared Clinton and his Administration "the enemy of normal Americans."

"The Republicans were very successful in trying to oppose everything and not being held accountable for being negative on everything, and they and other (conservative) forces did a pretty good job of keeping the country divided up," he said.

On top of that, he maintained, echoing his longstanding charge, Republicans and conservatives have worked to stir up questions about his personal life and record in Arkansas "to try to undermine my personal authority. . . ." And all of this, he said, gets amplified in a mainstream media environment "that focus(es) on conflict and process and the points of division, rather than on points of unity" and a feral talk-radio culture whose "primary purpose is to wound, not to enlighten."

Listening to Clinton's version of how his presidency has become a war zone, it's easy to understand the passion in his attacks this past week on the GOP. In fact, some see Clinton's campaign trail vitriol as nothing more than a man who has been hit with a baseball bat now picking up a tire iron (though his claims that the GOP intends to cut Social Security are as indefensible as the willful Republican mischaracterizations of the crime bill). And as a short-term political strategy, Clinton's attacks on the GOP may be the only way to motivate Democratic partisans who now appear too dispirited to vote.

If Republicans make the gains that now seem likely, Clinton could spend the next two years delivering more of those speeches. That's the Harry S. Truman strategy: castigating a do-nothing GOP Congress for blocking progress.

In the depth of his bitterness toward the GOP leadership, Clinton seems emotionally drawn to that option, and its difficult to believe that he will entirely forswear it over the next two years. But at some level he also understands that living at DefCon 1 may be both a political dead end and a betrayal of the bridge-building he promised the American people in his 1992 campaign.

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