A Raid On Reagan's Playbook Wins One For Clinton

In 1981, Democrats sat in stony silence as Ronald Reagan railed against welfare queens and gun-toting criminals. But when President Clinton pounded the podium in the House on Jan. 25, promising to force welfare mothers into jobs and vowing to lock up career criminals for life, the Democrats stood and cheered. Stunned Republicans could do little more than grumble that Clinton, reborn as a long-winded version of the Great Communicator, had stolen their best lines.

The President's State of the Union performance won rave reviews in overnight polls, though there was little new in his agenda of health-care reform, a welfare overhaul, and some largely symbolic crime-fighting. But with the speech, Clinton made it clear that he's swiping more than just a few pages from the Reagan playbook. He virtually replicated the Gipper's basic strategy of governance: Stick with a few core principles on every issue--and accept any outcome that meets the standard, however far it deviates in the details.

On health care, Clinton emphasized that he is no longer wedded to the complex specifics of his proposal, so long as Congress agrees on a plan to cover everyone. On crime and welfare reform, the President demonstrated that he's quite willing to sound Reaganesque themes of work, community, and family--if they're combined with Democratic touches of government activism to help the downtrodden. He even reminded Congress that Richard M. Nixon--whose name heretofore has been the object of consistently bipartisan avoidance--was an early advocate of health-care reform.

It's great theater. But Clinton's "talk Republican, govern Democratic" approach is fraught with dangers. Members of Congress, always ready to turn Clinton upside down and see what falls out of his pockets, may see his flexibility as a sign of weakness. And his plunge into Republican social issues risks alienating his electoral base of liberal Democrats. "It will be hard to hold the Democrats together," says James P. Pfiffner, government professor at George Mason University. "Clinton has no core coalition in Congress."

The GOP's position, however, is far more tenuous. The Republicans can lapse into shrill partisan opposition to many Republican-originated ideas hijacked by Clinton. Or they can vote with Clinton--and risk damaging GOP prospects in coming elections. Either way, they lose. "Right now, the President is in a perfect position to co-opt traditional Republican issues," says Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio. "This would be a devastating blow to the GOP."

Clinton still has a staggering amount of work to do to turn his rhetorical coup into substantive success. Were the Administration's health plan to come to a vote today, it would face crushing defeat. Moderate and conservative Democrats adamantly oppose requiring all employers to pay for coverage. Many Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, argue that there is no health-care crisis: All that's needed, he says, are modest steps making coverage more available to small businesses and individuals. And Clinton seems to have made his challenge even more difficult by threatening to veto any bill that does not guarantee comprehensive benefits to everyone.

But lines in the sand are movable. The Clintonites are signaling that the President is willing to compromise on every other provision of his complex proposal--from caps on insurance premiums to fee schedules for physicians. He's not wedded to an employer mandate as the only way to ensure benefits. Democratic liberals won't be happy, but they'll settle for a long-term phase-in of universal coverage as the price of passage. "If Clinton emphasizes the bottom line and is willing to give up the fine print, he will win on health care," says Democratic strategist Ted Van Dyk.

Clinton has shown the same willingness to bend on the thorny welfare issue--and here, too, he may have found a path to the political middle. In early January, the White House had just about decided to defer a welfare overhaul until next year. But the President changed his mind after Senate Finance Committee Chairman Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.) threatened to stop health care in its tracks unless welfare reform was taken up promptly. Now, Clinton says, the two measures should proceed in tandem.

Clinton's get-tough rhetoric on crime and welfare will win him grief from his own party's liberals. For almost 30 years, Democrats have reflexively branded GOP tough talk on these issues as thinly veiled racism. But now, Clinton is playing to a broad middle-class consensus that the welfare system has become a breeding ground for crime and dependency. Certainly, his tough talk played well with Americans such as Nettie G. Perkins, owner of a Denver beauty salon. "I come from a background where you didn't go on welfare," she said after the speech. "Working gives you pride in yourself."

The trick for Clinton is moving welfare moms off the dole after two years without appearing callous. "Welfare needs to be restructured, but people don't need to be dumped from the rolls," says Atlanta businessman Charles Whatley. To satisfy such voters, Clinton has to devise a package that includes job training, education, and employment opportunities--all within the constraints of tight budget caps. "There's a lot of dissatisfaction with welfare in the black community," says David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political & Economic Studies, a think tank specializing in African-American issues. "As long as he has some goodies for the welfare constituency, he can do two-year limits and some tough measures."

On crime, too, Clinton is seizing a political opportunity. Black outrage at the rising tide of urban crime has made it safe for Democrats to tackle the explosive issue. "Repeated criminal offenders must be dealt with," declares Representative Eva M. Clayton, a black Democrat from North Carolina. The anti-crime legislation Clinton called for on Jan. 25 is already well on its way to passage. The Senate overwhelmingly passed a tough bill last year, and House members are pondering polls showing that crime is the top issue on voter's minds.

There's some resistance on both ends of the political spectrum. Conservatives are fighting a Senate ban on assault weapons. House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and other liberals oppose such get-tough provisions as mandatory life sentences. But Clinton is ready to ruffle liberal feathers to win a quick victory. "This is inevitable," insists Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden (D-Del.). "They can tinker on the edges, but they can't stop it."

Clinton's agenda of health care, welfare, and crime sets a daunting legislative task for this year. But he's well on his way to defining success in ways that make victories possible. And that could allow him to match another Reagan feat--winning a second term.

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