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Clinton's Elusive Political Goal: A Place in the History Books

Future: President has compared himself to FDR, but his reelection agenda is unlikely to leave a mark, analysts say. Tough policy choices offer challenge.


WASHINGTON — Bill Clinton, who four years ago won the presidency amid a recession by offering himself as an agent of change, gained a second term Tuesday in large part because he successfully cast himself as a defender of long-established relationships between citizens and their government.

But what remains unclear, in the wake of a campaign in which Clinton's rhetoric raised more questions than it answered about his intentions and his convictions, was how well suited the president's considerable political gifts will be to the circumstances that could be expected to confront him in the next four years. The answer to that question likely will go a long way toward determining what is sure to preoccupy Clinton--his place in history.

His victory leaves Clinton for the first time in his life with nothing left to run for except a lofty position in the pantheon of presidents. One clear problem for him, though, is that the agenda on which he campaigned was not one designed to leave a lasting imprint.

"I think he has a very strong desire to go down in the history books as an important president," said presidential scholar William Leuchtenburg, who recalled a conversation last year in which Clinton likened himself to Franklin D. Roosevelt. "But the kinds of things he has been talking about--like uniforms for schoolchildren--are not going to get any space in the history books."

Of more immediate concern is the issue of how well Clinton has prepared the country for the tough policy choices that loom on a variety of fronts. Some argue that he has done as well as could be expected, given the harsh political realities that face a nation beset by competition for global markets and struggling with a tower of public debt. These analysts contend that although voters may expect more than relentless optimism from their politicians, they do not want to hear solely about the need for sacrifices.

"I don't think anybody runs for reelection talking like Paul Tsongas," said Tom Mann, Brookings Institution senior fellow, referring to the 1992 Democratic presidential contender who stressed various belt-tightening prescriptions to erase the federal budget deficit. "I don't think you run for reelection by telling people you've got to cut their entitlements."

As Mann sees it, Clinton performed a service by using the bully pulpit of his office and his campaign to sketch "a modest but nonetheless continuing important role for government in helping people adapt to a set of truly very revolutionary changes that are proving very disorienting."

Mann added: "And that's about as much government as the public will tolerate."

Others judge the president more harshly.

"The really crunch issues which the nation has to face simply were not on the table during the campaign," said Colin Campbell, political scientist at Georgetown University, Clinton's alma mater.

"The future of Medicare, the fallout from welfare reform, what we do in Bosnia--none of these things were discussed," Campbell said. The people have been told that all they have to worry about are 'soccer mom' problems like curfews for their kids. Now each time Clinton has to tackle one of the tough issues in his second term, he'll have to go through an educational process, and I don't know whether there is the time do that."

On one point the analysts agree--Clinton's reelection strategy was mainly shaped by the GOP seizure of Capitol Hill in the 1994 midterm elections. Ironically, this marked the nadir of his presidency. But after a few months, Clinton reinvigorated his presidency by positioning it as the counterweight to the efforts by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his cohorts to undo as much as they could of a half-century of Democratic activism in government.

"The best thing that happened to us is that we lost the Congress," White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes told a friend after he had time to reflect on the 1994 results. "If we had won the Congress by a narrow majority, we would have had to struggle to get anything done. But when the Republicans took over, it became Bill Clinton against the radical Republicans. They defined him better than he could have defined himself."

Nor did Clinton satisfy himself with merely thwarting Republican initiatives. Instead, he moved aggressively to muffle what had been the GOP's most potent campaign arguments in recent years, declaring an end to the era of big government, trumpeting his support for family values, stressing his commitment to crime fighting and signing a welfare reform bill that sent paroxysms of protest through his own party.

"Bill Clinton has done what no Democrat has done since FDR," Mann said. "He has, in effect, thrown down the gauntlet and challenged Republicans for the chance to establish the successor coalition to the New Deal coalition."

But if Clinton has blocked the GOP from emerging as the nation's new majority party, he has apparently been unable to achieve that status for his own party.

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