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Clinton Relishes Playing Bad Cop With the Bushes

Strategy: Unlike past presidents, he's speaking his mind--and with an edge also not heard before.


CORAL GABLES, Fla. — The question cut right through the heat and humidity of a South Florida golf course.

What, President Clinton was asked Tuesday, did he think of Bush-the-elder's testy threat to tell America what he really thinks of his successor, if Clinton does not ease off Bush-the-son within a month's time?

The president ignored the challenge and set off on a round of golf on an immaculate course framed by the majestic Biltmore Hotel--as if the world of politics held no place in his 24-7 political mind.

His staff shrugged it off too, agreeing with a suggestion that the president was likely to have lost little sleep over the political to-and-fro with his predecessor.

The campaigning-with-an-edge has set Clinton apart from his modern two-term predecessors, who generally adopted a more, shall we say, presidential presence when it came to the picking of a successor. And whether the Bushes like it or not, his aides say, it is likely to continue.

It is a role into which the president has seemingly slipped easily this political summer. He even seems to enjoy dishing it out as he reminds audiences (who may have forgotten, although he clearly has not) that Bush senior denigrated him eight years ago as "the governor of a small Southern state" and that he was "naive enough" to take it as a compliment. (He hasn't gotten around yet to bringing up the time Bush used the term "bozos" in 1992 to describe the team of Bill Clinton and Al Gore.)

Still, with Democrats who have ponied up $1 million for an hour of lobster and schmoozing with Clinton, there remains an often-wistful demeanor; clearly, Clinton is not happy that he is no longer on the ballot.

The job Clinton has taken on seems to have grated on the Bush family and stirred the former president's paternal loyalty to the point that the elder Bush is at least threatening to abandon his 7 1/2-year practice of not criticizing his successor.

At the same time, it is politically more comfortable for Clinton to take on this role than it would be for Gore, the candidate for whom he is campaigning. As it is, the vice president skates uncomfortably close to the edge of anger, even in this year of concern for voter backlash against negative tactics. By conventional political thinking, the keenest attacks must be delivered by surrogates, leaving the candidate to appear above the fray.

Consider, then, Clinton's performance last Friday at a fund-raising lunch for Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy in Rhode Island. His remarks went neatly to the heart of the president's midsummer political appeal.

As he has at nearly every political stop in recent weeks--and there have been at least eight over the last five days--he asked his audience to remember the times when they made huge mistakes, whether of a personal or professional nature, "not because things were going so poorly but because things were going so well you thought there was no penalty to the failure to concentrate."

"You know I'm telling the truth. That's the only thing I'm worried about this year. People just sort of saying, gosh, things are going so well, you couldn't mess this economy up with a stick of dynamite," he said.

Drawing a portrait of voters looking at the two presidential candidates--George W. Bush and Gore--he continued:

"There doesn't seem to be much difference to me, all these people are so nice."

That, he said, is the Republican message.

Spinning out this theme, he resumed his monologue, this time playing the role of Bush-the-candidate:

"I mean, how bad could I be? I've been governor of Texas; my daddy was president; I own a baseball team. They like me down there; everything is rocking along hunky-dory. Their fraternity had it for eight years, give it to ours for eight years--because we're compassionate and humane, and we're not like what you think about us from watching the Congress for the last five years.

"That's the message, isn't it? Blur, blur, blur. Blur all the distinctions."

Clinton is not so much traveling in uncharted waters as he is setting an uncharted course in waters much traveled by previous presidents who, upon completing two successful terms, watched their vice presidents run the difficult course for the White House.

Clinton's focus on Bush and the Republicans dovetails with his issue-based message, one of hammering the Republicans in Congress for failing to act on his bill of rights for patients in health maintenance organizations; for coming nowhere close to his proposal to provide prescription drug coverage for Medicare patients; for not supporting his education package. Those are themes on which Gore is campaigning.

"We're just going to keep talking about the differences over the core issues of the economy, health care and education," said Joel Johnson, a senior White House aide who accompanied Clinton here.

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