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Clinton Apologies May Not Be Sorry Move, Analysts Say : Politics: Official Washington is reacting negatively to the President's statements, but the tactic has worked in the past, observers note.

November 04, 1995|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — He regrets and repents. His allies howl and his critics rejoice.

President Clinton's confessional tendencies have been on display the last two weeks, as presidential mea culpas about the 1993 tax increase and legislative proposals have set off a thunderclap of reaction in Washington.

But how damaging is this? Even some GOP partisans acknowledge that in the current confessional age, Clinton's desire to make a clean breast may not be such a political liability.

After all, Clinton offered a televised apology in 1982 for the flaws of his first gubernatorial term--and was reelected. His polls drifted upward in the summer of 1993 after he promised to improve the performance of his callow White House.

And his political standing has been strengthened by several measures since he admitted making mistakes in the aftermath of the midterm Republican blowout election of November, 1994.

As a tactic, "you could argue it either way," said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, who has been working for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination.

"People here flinch, but I'm not sure it's such a bad thing as far as the regular world goes," Democratic consultant Don Sweitzer said.

Certainly, official Washington's reaction has been overwhelmingly negative.

Congressional Democrats howled and Republicans exulted when Clinton told a well-heeled Houston crowd Oct. 17 that it had been a mistake to raise income taxes--a measure that affected the top 1.2% of taxpayers--in 1993. The reaction was much the same this week when it was disclosed that Clinton had said, in an interview with syndicated columnist Ben Wattenberg, that he regretted his welfare proposals.

Congressional Democrats' regard for the President had just been recovering from the Houston remark when the Wattenberg column "made it drop like a rock again," said one House member. "You can only be surprised so many times, then you start beginning to expect it."

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Some White House officials were jarred too. But they could not be very surprised, considering that ritual breast-baring has long been a matter of political dogma and personal predilection for Clinton.

In 1982, at the urging of Dick Morris, the President's current chief political adviser, Clinton went on television to admit that he had erred in his first term by raising taxes and trying to complete too heavy a legislative agenda. While Morris' role then has led some to believe that the recent confessions are entirely his doing, people close to Clinton said the President's own inclination to own up is at least as important.

And Clinton is by no means alone in taking this tack.

Politicians of all ideological stripes have used it--often to great effect.

Illinois Republican Sen. Charles H. Percy, for instance, threatened by perceptions that he was ignoring his constituents, asked voters in 1978 for forgiveness and promised to reform. He prevailed.

Likewise, Texas GOP Sen. John Tower was reelected after he expressed public contrition for refusing to shake an opponent's hand.

Presidents, however, have been less willing to acknowledge error and have tended to want to give as little ground as possible when they have done so. In the closing acts of the Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon declared that "mistakes were made," yet somehow sought to escape blame.

President George Bush acknowledged that he had erred in agreeing to a 1990 tax hike but waited until March, 1992, when presidential opponents were bashing him daily on the issue. Even then, he simply acknowledged that the move was a mistake because of the "political flak" he had taken.

Presidents can less afford to admit error, perhaps because the public expects more of them than of lower-ranking officials.

In Newhouse's view, Clinton's recent admissions have risked spreading the perception that "here he's the leader of the free world and he's changing his mind every six months."

Other analysts see these displays as especially risky for a President vulnerable to the perception that he lacks firm conviction.

"This is a good strategy if you truly believe you were wrong and want to go to the people," said GOP pollster Ed Goeas.

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