Clinton Hears Rumblings Within Own Ranks : Politics: Moderate Democrats fret that he has leaned too much toward old-style 'interest-group liberalism.'


Just as he is seeking to reach out to middle-class voters, President Clinton is hearing rumblings of discontent from the heart of his moderate political support.

Some members of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group that has lent Clinton credibility as a moderate, have been fretting that their former chairman has leaned too much toward old-style "interest-group liberalism" rather than toward the centrist "new Democrat" views he promoted during last year's campaign.

And some assert more bluntly that his economic program is tax-heavy and too bound to 1960s-style social programs and that his economic and health care plans both are vulnerable to the perception that they will create vast bureaucracies.

In the metaphor of courtship, "we still know he's the wonderful man we fell in love with," said one member of the group. "But since we've been married, we've found he has a few flaws."

Some intraparty tension is inevitable. But this friction shows how much ground Clinton still has to make up with the swing voters he has been assiduously courting as he tries to build momentum for his economic and health care plans.

Clinton is both patron and old pal for members of the DLC, which was formed in the ashes of Walter F. Mondale's 1984 presidential defeat to steer the party toward the vote-rich political center. So the group's leaders tread softly in discussing differences. They stress their hope that Clinton's emphasis this month on welfare reform, national service and government reform bespeak an intention to move to the political center.

But top officials publicly acknowledge their general concern. Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), the DLC chairman, believes Clinton needs to demonstrate that his roots are in the center.

"He has to govern from the middle out," said Breaux, who came up through the Democratic ranks with Clinton. "For one thing, you need the political cover. You can't start from the fringe and work in."

Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.), another DLC stalwart, says Clinton has made some decisions that indicate a liberal orientation, and others that are moderate in direction.

"The style has been to do a little bit of both," said McCurdy. "But you have to force some choices between interests, and sometimes between your friends."

DLC members assert that the President has missed an opportunity to score points by failing to more actively promote his planned welfare-reform program. Due out this fall, it calls for giving welfare recipients training and support, but requiring them to support themselves after two years.

The theme had huge popular appeal for Clinton during the campaign year, they say--Clinton's approval ratings sometimes jumped 5% after ads promoting the proposal aired in some TV markets.

The DLC's mixed review of the President was sketched out this month in a surprisingly candid assessment in the group's house organ.

Written by Al From, the DLC president, and Will Marshall, president of the DLC-affiliated Progressive Policy Institute, the article said that Clinton has remained "largely faithful" to the priorities of the "forgotten middle class." Those values include personal responsibility, work and family, the group believes.

But the article also said that Clinton had decreased his emphasis on such values since the campaign. It said his economic plan had included spending for new and worthwhile purposes but also for "questionable expansions of old social programs."

It faulted Clinton for being too deferential to congressional interests. And it criticized the proposed economic and health plans, which, it said, by calling for more taxes and spending "can put at risk Clinton's pledge to be a 'different kind of Democrat' by appearing to place him at odds with the public's abiding aversion to big government."

Addressing tactics, the article suggested that Clinton would have appeared less like the old-style Democrat if he had framed his decisions to lift the ban on gays in the military and to cover abortions with Medicaid dollars in the context of his broader values.

Since he did not, "the issues seemed to reflect the strident demands of activists and constituency groups rather than the President's own more balanced discussion of rights and responsibilities," the article said.

While insisting that Clinton had made a "solid down payment" on his pledge to act as a new Democrat, it warned that "the President's advisers would do well to remember the lessons of the campaign. Candidate Clinton was at his strongest when he clearly articulated the ideology and ideas of a different kind of Democrat."

In an interview, From disputed the prevailing view that the centrist Democrats had lost out to the party's liberal wing in Cabinet selections. He noted that the Cabinet includes such charter DLC members as Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, Office of Management and Budget Director Leon E. Panetta, Defense Secretary Les Aspin, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros and Education Secretary Richard W. Riley.

Analysts have speculated about the political pull of some strongly liberal Administration officials, including Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, White House communications aide Ricki Seidman and outside adviser Susan Thomases. From observed that the White House now includes a raft of aides with DLC credentials, from domestic policy deputies Bruce Reed and William Galston to Al Gore aide Elaine C. Kamarck.

Nonetheless, From acknowledged that in the opening months of the Clinton presidency, the traditional forces of the Democratic Party exerted a strong influence on the President's agenda.

"The infrastructure of the Democratic Party and the interest groups hasn't changed a lot," he said. And in the 12 past years of Republican administrations, "Democrats hadn't gotten very much. So the demands were great, maybe even overwhelming."

Clinton signaled a desire to strengthen ties with the DLC last month when he surprised the group with a decision to unveil his national service program at a DLC meeting in New Orleans. At the appearance, he spoke about the conflicting demands of the job, but he also talked of his commitment to their views.

From insists that the group's view is not alarm or frustration, but "concern."

"It takes a while for an Administration to get its sea legs," he said. "Our goal is to push him to make the new Democrat agenda his agenda. Over the long haul, we're convinced it will be."

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