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Into the Final Fray : How Did Candidate Clinton Pull Off His Amazing Political Resurrection? A Large Part of the Answer Can Be Found in President Clinton and the New, Transformed 'Yes, But' Presidency.

February 11, 1996|Doyle McManus | Doyle McManus is The Times' Washington bureau chief. His last article for the magazine was an analysis of the Clinton administration's foreign policy

By at least some measures, these should be triumphant days for Bill Clinton.

The president is launching his reelection campaign, the last race of his career, with polls that show he can beat any opponent handily. He has more than $20 million in his campaign accounts and no opposition in his own party. Thanks to a long battle over the federal budget, he even has a campaign slogan that he likes: Television commercials this fall will portray Clinton as the man who defended Medicare against heartless budget-cutters. And all this reflects a feat of remarkable political skill; scarcely a year ago, Clinton was flat on his back, steamrollered by a Republican congressional landslide that amounted, as well, to a blunt repudiation of the president. To have bounced back in only a year is a remarkable comeback.

Yet the mood in the West Wing of the White House is not triumphant. Clinton's aides look grim, not victorious. They still bustle from meeting to meeting, still work from 8 in the morning to well past 8 at night, but they no longer wear the cocksure panache that marked their first two years in power and so annoyed the rest of Washington, Republican and Democrat alike. Instead, the president's men and women seem both weary and wary. They have seen Clinton's standing with the public soar and plunge like a roller coaster; they can't help fearing that any giddiness they feel today may only portend a sickening drop tomorrow.

In public, Clinton appears buoyant and inexhaustible, but inside the White House he, too, is grimly realistic about the kind of year this will be. One day in December, advisor George Stephanopoulos walked into the Oval Office to give Clinton the good news that a CNN poll showed him beating his most likely Republican opponent, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, by 53% to 34%--a landslide margin of 19%. Clinton glanced at the figures and dismissed them with a fleeting smile. "It isn't true," he said.

But there is a more profound reason for unease in the White House than just the ebb and flow of a president's popularity. Bill Clinton is reinventing himself again, and some of his own supporters--in Congress, as well as in the White House--are worried about where he is going. This supreme political tactician, perhaps the most gifted campaigner of a generation, has pulled out every stop to wage his what he hopes will be the greatest comeback of his life. uphill fight for reelection. But has he revived his candidacy only to compromise his presidency?

For much of Clinton's success this past year has come at the expense of programs and priorities that the president and his aides once held dear. A Democrat who came to office promising to retool the economy, promote high technology and retrain laid-off workers has found himself echoing the Republican creed: The first imperative of government is to balance the budget within seven years. That transformation has been the key to Clinton's resuscitation as a viable candidate--but it has left some of his own aides wondering what they came to Washington for.

"This is not much fun," one White House official groused during the endless rounds of program-cutting that dominated this winter's negotiations on the budget. "This is not what most of us came here to do."

What's at stake, of course, is much more important than the wounded ambitions of White House aides--more, even, than the outcome of this year's election. Clinton likes to talk about history; one of his favorite themes this year has been the choices that the American nation must make as it moves from a 20th century industrial economy to a 21st century information economy. But, as the president sometimes adds, such an epochal economic transformation normally brings a political transformation as well. What's at stake in this battle is not only whether the Democratic Party enters the new century with its leader in the White House, but whether the party even survives.

Clinton and his aides say they are fighting for a basic idea--the proposition that Americans want the federal government to play an active role in promoting economic growth and providing a safety net for the poor--against Republicans who believe that the best government is the least government. But to preserve that idea, Clinton has accepted one of the GOP's main priorities: the idea that a balanced budget--something the president had previously given only halfhearted attention--should be the first goal of federal fiscal policy. And at the same time, he has virtually abandoned some of his own long-held aims.

"Our main goal is to preserve what we can, so that there is at least a framework of federal programs still there, instead of destroying things entirely," a member of Clinton's cabinet explained.

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