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Clinton's Low Risk Presidency

June 22, 1997|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

WASHINGTON — An odd, and faintly disturbing, finding turned up in a recent poll that asked Americans what they thought President Bill Clinton's legacy would be in 25 years. The top two responses were "negative personal qualities" and "the Whitewater controversy."

OK, there are a lot of Clinton-haters out there, and an open-ended question invites them to vent. So the poll boiled it down to two choices: "All things considered, 25 years from now do you think Bill Clinton will be remembered more for his accomplishments as president or more for controversies over his personal life and financial dealings?" By better than 2 to 1, the public said, "controversies over his personal life and financial dealings." Apparently, they mean it.

The kicker is that Clinton's job-approval rating stands at 59%. That's about as high as it has ever been and only a few points down from early February. Five months after his inaugural, Clinton's still enjoying his second honeymoon.

It has become commonplace to say Clinton wants everyone to like him. Well, it looks like he has succeeded. But his popularity doesn't seem based on any record of achievement. At least nothing voters are aware of. It's the Dick Morris philosophy: The purpose of politics is to stay popular and get reelected.

Look at Clinton's speech on racial reconciliation last Saturday. It did not have the feel of a bold new agenda. It was modest, cautious and preservationist in intent. "I know that the people of California voted to repeal affirmative action without any ill motive," the president said. "But consider the results . . . . We must not resegregate higher education." Is affirmative action the best way to do that? Clinton was not sure. "To those who oppose affirmative action," he said in San Diego, "I ask you to come up with an alternative. I would embrace it if I could find a better way."

It was a low-risk speech. But it carried a big message. Not about race relations, but about Clinton's presidency: Clinton has become the low-risk president.

Ask yourself, what's Clinton's agenda? The agenda was pretty clear during his first two years: a major new program of public investment, including universal health care. But the president quickly discovered he was venturing outside the boundaries of the public consensus. Clinton was forced to acknowledge that Ronald Reagan was right: The era of big government is over.

Then the Republican Congress got elected. It, too, proceeded to go outside the boundaries of the Reagan consensus. The GOP Congress did something Reagan never did. It threatened the safety net. In fact, Reagan is the guy who coined the term "safety net." Clinton immediately discovered a new purpose to his presidency. He was there to preserve the safety net. That's not a big agenda--but it was good enough to get him reelected.

Clinton became a kind of Dwight D. Eisenhower figure during his first term. Like Ike, he legitimized his predecessors' agenda. Eisenhower kept the New Deal in place. He became the first president to enforce racial integration after the Democrats put civil rights on the agenda in 1948. Eisenhower legitimized Harry S. Truman's foreign policy of anti-commu- nist containment, turning the Cold War into a bipartisan consensus.

What are Clinton's most significant achievements to date? One is deficit reduction. To accomplish that, Democrats had to vote for a tax hike in 1993, which they paid dearly for in 1994. This year, Democrats had to be dragged kicking and screaming into a balanced-budget deal.

Clinton also achieved breakthroughs in free trade. The North America Free Trade Agreement, for example. But most Democrats in Congress opposed NAFTA. It passed because the GOP supported it.

Welfare reform is probably Clinton's most significant accomplishment. When it came up for a vote in Congress last summer, welfare reform split Democrats down the middle. Once again, Republicans gave Clinton victory.

Deficit reduction, free trade and welfare reform--nothing particularly Democratic about that record. They are GOP priorities, which Clinton has ably implemented and legitimized. Just as Eisenhower legitimized Democratic policies on spending, civil rights and containment.

While Clinton's big agenda may look suspiciously Republican, Democrats need not fear. The president has a small agenda for them. Things like: a minimum-wage hike, the Brady bill, anti-smoking measures, the assault-weapons ban, the family-leave act, more police on the street, education tax breaks and curbs on TV violence. What does it all add up to? "Safety first."

Under Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman and John F. Kennedy, the Democratic Party cultivated a tradition of "great enterprises for great purposes, at home and abroad." The New Deal, the Marshall Plan, the New Frontier, the Great Society, the War on Poverty were all bold, large-scale and risky ventures. That tradition is dead. For Democrats, the era of big government has yielded to the era of the safety net.

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