Commentary: Clinton: From Road Warrior To Elmer Fudd

It's less than three weeks since Election Day, and like all political junkies, I'm suffering withdrawal pains. There are the classic symptoms: dry throat whenever I scan the papers and can't find a soccer-mom story, shaky hands as I search in vain for a C-SPAN election forum, and cold sweats as I realize that Bill Clinton won't be hitting the campaign trail again to dispense pork-barrel presents from Air Force One. "Have you been good, Cleveland? Here's a bridge. Ho, ho, ho...."

But the worst letdown is watching the President shift from the seamless precision of campaign mode to the grinding clunkiness of running the government. As a road warrior, Clinton had no peer. "We were up against the best campaigner of the century," says Republican consultant Jeffrey Bell. "Clinton just punched our lights out." And the Clinton we're seeing now? Butterfingers Bill, the reelected leader who's displaying his customary clumsiness on foreign policy, the budget, and staff appointments.

SECOND THOUGHTS. Since GOP challenger Bob Dole never posed much of a threat, the President had ample opportunity to avoid the glitches that plagued the start of his first term. Nonetheless, it took Clinton only a few days after the election to resume acting like a foreign-affairs klutz. First came weeks of wavering on sending troops to Zaire, which upset allies. The courageous decision: send a token force led by Canada. And while it wasn't entirely unexpected, the holiday announcement on Bosnia--surprise, U.S. peacekeepers wouldn't be coming home this Christmas as promised--only reminded Americans why they got queasy over Clinton's foreign policy.

The President's budgetary back flip wasn't any more reassuring. On Nov. 12, he announced that he's now likely to support a balanced-budget amendment. Republicans rejoiced. But Clinton's economists hate the amendment's rigidity. After opposing Hill Democrats griped the about-face could trigger defections in their ranks, Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin declared Clinton's statement inoperative. The result: mass confusion.

When it came to a perennial Clinton bugaboo--personnel--things began on a promising note. Prodded by the White House, seven Cabinet chiefs announced their departures soon after Nov. 5. The shakeup gave Clinton a chance to revitalize his weary team. So have any of those jobs been filled? Nope.

Clinton desperately wants to name a successor to Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher but can't decide between former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, U.N. Ambassador Madeleine K. Albright, or former Assistant Secretary Richard Holbrooke. The President left on an important diplomatic mission to Asia Nov. 23 with no clear line of succession at State. Bad joss.

Then there's the Janet Reno affair. Because she's viewed as too receptive to GOP demands for ethics inquiries, the Clintonites have it in for her. The White House leaked word that she would be quitting the Justice Dept. Then, someone realized a perceived ouster just as Whitewater is coming to a head and the Donorgate scandal is unfolding would look like a political hit. So Reno gets to stay on, working for a President who clearly wishes she would disappear.

Bungling aside, there's a reason why Cabinet jobs could remain vacant for months. Alarmed that too many plum posts will go to white males, feminists and other interest groups are lobbying furiously for their members. The goal of making his team "look like America" caused Clinton grief in '93. But he may repeat the mistake with a new diversityfest that puts token minorities in the Cabinet while the White House remains a frat-house bastion.

THANKS A LOT. Clinton also has managed to alienate some of his campaign veterans. They're in a funk over the dumping of Harold M. Ickes, his top political aide. Ickes worked hard to get his boss reelected but was passed over for Chief of Staff. Worse, incoming Erskine B. Bowles insisted that Ickes not remain as his deputy. Clinton delayed delivering the bad news until the eve of Bowles's announcement.

For those of us trying to kick the campaign habit, watching this pageant of gaffe-prone governance has been a downer. It only reinforces my nostalgia for seeing Clinton, the demonic campaigner, return to the land of endless rope lines and countless promises. The governing Clinton? That's just too gruesome a spectacle to behold.

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