Why Clinton Is Distancing Himself From The Dems

Time and again, surveys reveal voter disgust with the two parties. The Democrats are wedded to big government. The Republicans are heartless. And the public yearns for a third choice. So the poll-obsessed White House has come up with a novel way to ride the wave: Bill Clinton, independent candidate for President.

Since the GOP takeover of Congress, Clinton has been cutting ties to Democrats and party positions he backed in 1993 and 1994. The goal is to smooth relations with Republicans and appear to be able to get things done. So it's no surprise resentment is pervasive among old allies who think he's selling out. "He's the Greta Garbo President--he wants to be alone," sniffs Representative Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.).

"TRIANGULATION." Clinton's recent repudiation of his 1993 tax hike, which he partly blamed on Democrats, is only the most vivid example of his pseudo-independent tack. His startling embrace of Medicare cuts and a balanced budget last spring undercut House Democrats. Then he endorsed a tough GOP welfare-reform bill, giving reluctant Senate Democrats little choice but to go along. Finally, on Oct. 30, he ignored objections from the Congressional Black Caucus and signed a Republican bill to continue stiff sentences for crack cocaine convictions.

Isn't Clinton worried about alienating supporters--liberals, moderates, blacks, environmentalists, labor, and Democratic governors and mayors? Hardly. It's a calculated strategy, courtesy of Dick Morris, a Republican consultant and Clinton confidant. Morris, who calls his game plan "triangulation," believes Clinton can attract independents by becoming a triangle's apex that towers over the opposing points of tired Democratic ideology and GOP extremism.

Some White House advisers say the tack is working, pointing to Clinton's poll ratings that have been creeping up toward 50%. "There is a focus, unity, and common purpose not seen in this White House before," says one adviser.

But masquerading as an independent is risky. Having won just 43% of the vote in 1992's three-way contest, Clinton may shatter his base in his eagerness to lure the middle. Although Clintonites insist Democrats will get on board to keep a Republican out of the White House, they may have forgotten the bitter lesson President Carter learned in 1980, when he turned his back on much of his party's base: Millions of disgusted Democratic voters stayed home, and others, including union households, voted Republican.

Already, some union leaders have vowed to focus resources in '96 on close House matchups rather than the Presidential race. And if retired General Colin L. Powell runs as a Republican, Clinton's dissing of the Democrats may spark a stampede of party members, especially blacks, to the GOP.

Clinton meanwhile could have trouble governing. Many Democrats won't feel compelled to back him on tough votes. Indeed, on Oct. 30, half the House Democrats joined Republicans opposed to Clinton's request to send U.S. troops to Bosnia. "He can end up with no allies," says Democratic consultant Brian Lunde.

To other critics, Clinton's frequent policy shifts smack of opportunism. That's why Hill Democrats are dreading the coming negotiations on the GOP balanced-budget plan. They fear that despite all his breast-beating about GOP excesses, Clinton's desire to cut a deal will prompt him to cave--leaving his party brethren in Congress to take the heat as obstructionists.

For a President atop a golden triangle, it's not a bad thing now to have Hill Democrats angry at him. But Democratic pros say Clinton may end up in a political box--romancing voters unsure of where he stands and wondering why they should reelect a man who treats his friends so shabbily.

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