Will Clinton Be Forced To Tilt Toward The Left?

As the summer of Bill Clinton's discontent wound down on Martha's Vineyard, the beleaguered President had plenty to think about while he waited for Hurricane Bonnie to head up the coast. How serious a threat is Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr's reported decision to charge him with a wide-ranging abuse of power? Can he trust House Speaker Newt Gingrich's vow that only a pattern of felonies, rather than a single lie about a sexual escapade, would be grounds for impeachment? And will he be able to defrost relations with his icily outraged Democratic allies?

For Clinton these days, there are far more questions than answers. The most fateful of them awaits his return to Washington on Aug. 30: Can a President who is viewed as a superb economic steward but a weasel when it comes to ethics salvage any semblance of operational clout? The answer will determine how Clinton handles key domestic policy choices headed his way as Congress races through an end-of-session legislative flurry.

During Clinton's vacation, aides began debating ways to shore up their boss's political support in the face of growing Republican threats to officially censure him. Some political advisers urge an avid courtship of Hill Democrats that would include a legislative tack to the left on issues important to business. But that means Clinton would have to suppress his natural tendency to compromise with the GOP.

Clinton's centrist policy wonks counter that such a shift courts disaster. It would sacrifice his New Democratic legacy--fiscal restraint, welfare reform, and a robust business climate--in a short-term quest for support. "It buys him nothing to start acting like Ted Kennedy," says one outside adviser to the White House. "How many liberals are left in the country?"

Maybe not many. But there are plenty in Congress. And they may be sending Clinton a none-too-subtle message. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota voiced sharp disappointment with Clinton after his weak Monica apology. And on Aug. 25, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri went a good deal further when he left open the possibility of impeachment.

One of the ways Clinton can encourage liberals to stand with him is to stand with them in the drive for a powerful patient "bill of rights." Clinton prodded Congress so often to move on the issue that a worried GOP has produced its own tepid package of patient protections. In the past, the Prez's pragmatism would lead him to cut a deal. But liberals want the legislation to die so they can accuse Republicans of kowtowing to the brutes of managed care. They fear that Clinton will neutralize their top campaign weapon.

TAX AMMO. Clinton will face a similar problem with tax policy. Many liberals oppose the GOP push for tax relief. Clinton hints that he could accept a tax cut of about $70 billion over five years in exchange for restored funding for his education initiatives. But liberals would prefer to go into the elections with the White House bashing Republicans for proposing billions in "irresponsible" tax cuts that put Social Security at risk.

Will Clinton's woes compel him to reemerge as a lefty to ingratiate himself with party regulars? True, the man has the strongest survival instinct of any politician in memory, and he has zigzagged from left to right before. But, say his friends, at his core Bill Clinton remains an instinctive New Democrat--one reluctant to change sides now. Besides, in the battleground that has become the Clinton Presidency, it's a bit late for a foxhole conversion.

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