THE CONTROVERSY over gays in the military was the last thing the Clinton Administration needed on the heels of the Zoe Baird fiasco. Having come across as morally lost and politically tone-deaf in their choice of attorney general, the new Administration immediately ignited another political wildfire.
The phones started ringing again. The Republicans threatened to torpedo the Administration’s first legislative efforts with an amendment affirming the ban on gays. The Joint Chiefs posed grim-faced. Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), the leading Democrat on defense issues, expressed strong opposition, making clear that he hadn’t been consulted and wasn’t about to be ignored. Inside the Beltway, pundits shook their collective heads, wondering how such a well-run and astute campaign could metamorphize into such a bungling White House operation. What happened to the sure-footed candidate and the well-oiled machine?
To be sure, nothing that happens in these first weeks will make or break this new Administration. The question is not whether this controversy will pass--it will--but how quickly the new Administration can begin the task of governing, of leading and shaping public opinion. As an issue to launch a new Administration, gays in the military is hardly an ideal choice, not because Bill Clinton doesn’t hold the moral high ground, but because it is a political hot button of the sort that has been used so effectively against Democrats in the past. The public is, at best, evenly divided, with the intensity of opposition higher than the intensity of support. In addition, the White House did not make its civil-rights case effectively, while the opposition made theirs forcefully. That’s why the phones are running 100-1 against the President.
Worse, the issue highlights Clinton’s own inexperience with the military, and strains the fragile relations between the new defense secretary, Les Aspin, and the senator from Georgia--who did not get his job. And if that weren’t enough, it is hardly the issue that most voters care most about.
Given all that, the only reason to proceed boldly here--as opposed to a strategy of consultation, one-step-at-a-time, Washington-style consensus-building--is because Clinton feels so strongly that he is willing to pay whatever the political price to do what is right. But if that is Clinton’s motivation, where is the leadership to bring America with him?
The rap against Clinton coming into office was that he was too much the consensus-builder at a time when bold action was needed, too willing to compromise, too eager to be all things to all people. That is not how he came across, at least initially, on the issue of gays in the military. But while he had stated his position clearly, he did not take his case to the people. The Administration seemed to expect the Congress, the military and, most important, the people to follow the President--without his having to lead them anywhere. The strongest expression of his position came too late--at his Friday announcement of a compromise that made him look weaker. A President, if he is to succeed, must do more than announce where he is going and expect the country to fall in line--and then compromise or back down if we don’t. He must lead us there.
If there is a lesson here, it is that the new Administration cannot afford to handle the economy and health care--the issues that matter most--with the same laissez-faire tactics. The question is not who heads the health-care task force--Hillary Rodham Clinton was never going to be the kind of First Lady who is universally loved because she confines herself to issues that are universally supported. If she’s going to catch flak--and it was inevitable that once the cookies were put aside, she would--she might as well catch flak over something that matters, and health care does.
But the suggestion in her appointment that at the end of 100 days, Hillary Clinton and her colleagues would announce to America the “answer” on health care seems a setup for disaster. There is, of course, no right answer--not only because of the complexity of the problem, but because resources are limited, and living with limited resources requires all of us to change the way we think and act.
The task ahead is not simply to get the best experts to hunker down in a war room and come up with a plan; it is to educate, communicate and persuade Americans so that all will be willing to support the plan proposed. If controlling costs is to be key, then the President must persuade Americans who have insurance to redefine “quality.” What is needed is precisely the kind of leadership and communication that defined the Clinton campaign and the Clinton economic summit.
So, too, in spades, for the economy. During the campaign, Ross Perot, armed with flip charts and pointer, argued that reducing the deficit was the single biggest challenge for a new Administration. Candidate Clinton disagreed; while he pledged to reduce the deficit, he stated repeatedly that stimulating the economy and producing jobs must come first. President Clinton, in his first week in office, seems to have reversed course. Middle-class tax hikes were placed on the table by the new Treasury secretary, while the economic stimulus program seems to be scaled back on a daily basis.
It is possible, as some cynics argue, that Clinton has simply been co-opted by the deficit hounds and Wall Street bankers he has appointed to advise him. It is also possible that, faced with the new deficit figures and the gravity of office, the President has changed his mind about what his priorities must be.
But if that’s the case, perhaps he needs some flip charts of his own. He certainly needs to talk straight to the American people, and explain why deficit reduction should matter as much to the Joes and Janes on Main Street as it obviously does to the bond traders on Wall Street. The suggestion last week that the President had never really promised not to raise middle-class taxes, that he had only pledged he would not raise taxes “to pay for his programs,” might persuade a panel of Talmudic scholars, but it was an insult to the democratic process.
If Clinton has changed his mind, then he needs to help the American people change theirs. If he’s decided on a course of sacrifice, as his inaugural address hinted, then it’s time to be clear about it. The people are not fools, and they have telephones and talk shows. If the President won’t speak to them, someone will. Clever dodges by spokesmen are no substitute for leadership.
Jimmy Carter is the shadow that hangs over the Clinton Administration. Carter was a smart man, but he was unable to lead, and his team was ultimately considered in over its head, contemptuous of Congress and even of the people. Clinton is no Carter. And two weeks is certainly too soon to judge his team. But politics abhors a vacuum. This Administration’s rocky start makes it all the more important to quickly silence the naysayers by taking control of the agenda, and taking not only the Congress and the insiders, but also the public, with them.