Ce Os And Clinton: Not So Strange Bedfellows

The ranks of Republican bosses for Clinton are growing

Like many execs, Robert A. Meister, vice-chairman of Chicago-based Aon Risk Services Inc., calls himself a Republican. He backed George Bush in 1992. And he's no fan of President Clinton's vetoes of bills to limit corporate product liability and to shield companies from shareholder lawsuits.

Yet Meister says he'll vote for Clinton this fall, and he even is raising money for the President. Why? The insurance executive thinks the GOP Congress was reckless to threaten default on the federal debt and that it "uses a sledgehammer rather than trying to come up with compromises" on issues. As for Bob Dole, Meister says sadly: "I don't think he understands what the country is looking for right now."

A fluke? Not at all. Meister is part of a small but growing movement that bears watching. Over lunches at tony eateries and during Saturday golf outings, die-hard Republican execs quietly are discussing the unthinkable: helping Clinton win four more years. Even big-name CEOs may hop on the bandwagon. Clinton's team says MCI Communications Corp.'s chief, Bert C. Roberts Jr., who has worked closely with the White House on telecom and education issues, will campaign for Clinton later this year. Roberts won't comment.

CENTER SHIFT. There's no question that Dole remains the favorite among executives. A BUSINESS WEEK poll of 402 senior executives, conducted by Louis Harris & Associates Inc., found that 67% said they would vote for Dole if the election were held now, compared with 25% for the President. And Dole still leads Clinton on many key economic issues, such as cutting the deficit, creating jobs, and ensuring economic growth. But CEO support for Clinton is up from the paltry 9% he got in a BUSINESS WEEK poll conducted in September, 1994. If such erosion of a bedrock GOP constituency continues, it could mean big trouble for Dole's plan to paint Clinton as an antibusiness liberal.

Preempting such an attack is one reason the White House is trying to move Clinton to the center on issues ranging from welfare reform to capital gains tax cuts. Does the White House see movement among CEOs? "Very definitely," said Vice-President Al Gore in a May 21 interview with BUSINESS WEEK. But he says it's happening slowly--"in ones and twos. They're showing up at our events and writing letters to the President and me, saying they want to be helpful."

CEOs are giving Clinton a second chance for one big reason: He looks like a winner. But many also think that Gingrich & Co. have become too extreme on social issues. One skeptic is Kathryn L. Haycock, CEO of Call-America, a long-distance company in Mesa, Ariz. Haycock says she never questioned her loyalty to the Republican Party until the GOP took over Congress. Now she thinks the party is in the thrall of special interests, and she is raising money among her Republican colleagues for Clinton. "Congress is so far to the right that it no longer represents the majority of Republicans," she says. "If the Republicans were ever to gain control of both the Presidency and both houses of Congress, it would be a catastrophe."

David G. Speck, a managing director of Wheat First Butcher Singer Inc., left the GOP a year ago in disgust. "There's a reluctance among business people to support an activist Democrat," he says. "But a lot of what Clinton is talking about is a message you heard from the moderate Republican Party of 20 years ago."

Clintonites are doing all they can to pick up converts, pushing their record on the economy, job growth, and export promotion. And some CEOs seem to be buying it. In the BUSINESS WEEK poll, some 37% give Clinton a positive rating for his economic stewardship. That's better than the 15% positive rating he got in September, 1994. And Dole? He gets high negative ratings on creating growth and new jobs.

Still, GOP partisans dismiss the idea that Clinton can win executives' favor. "Any sophisticated CEO will find what we're doing dramatically more helpful in job creation and in being able to compete in the world market than the kind of bureaucratic, liberal, trial lawyer, labor union system that Clinton represents," Newt Gingrich says. But some executives now seem willing to go with the Democrat, as long as he looks like a winner.

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