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NEWS ANALYSIS : Clinton’s Use of the Soft Sell Worries Allies

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

For President Clinton, it’s the most important sales pitch of the year--maybe of his presidency. Yet to the dismay of many supporters, the President is approaching his task with surprising diffidence.

In defiance of the most basic tenets of personal salesmanship, he seems unable to “close the deal” or “ask for the sale.”

With his economic plan moving toward a final vote, probably next week, this would seem to be the time for Clinton to be grabbing lapels, twisting arms and generally acting the part of an implacable insurance agent closing on a $1-million policy.

After all, the budget package--with its huge package of tax increases and spending cuts--is the key to Clinton’s promise to reduce the federal budget deficit and revitalize the U.S. economy. And both Democratic and Republican vote counters agree that the outcome is so much in doubt that the White House cannot afford to lose a single winnable vote.

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But instead of the salesman who won’t take no for an answer, some lawmakers have been surprised to discover that the President--while sparing no personal effort--has applied the softest of soft sells.

In a whirlwind round of meetings with lawmakers this week, Clinton has marshaled facts and arguments, expressed tender sympathy for the political agonies of individual representatives and senators and voiced hope for a compromise. But at the end of most such sessions he has stopped short of laying on the arm.

Often--breaking with hoary Oval Office tradition--he has not even directly asked the lawmakers for their votes.

With all the chips on the table, these tactics are making some Democrats nervous.

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Said a key congressional aide: “You’ve got to say: ‘We gotta have it.’ No bull about how much you like it, or don’t like it, or what you want to fix later. No sympathy. Just push it.”

Agreed presidential historian Michael Beschloss: “It’s a little bit inexplicable, considering that it is a cardinally important bill. It’s exactly the opposite of what L.B.J. would have done.”

Clinton’s tactics owe partly to the President’s relatively weak political position, which makes browbeating difficult. But they also reflect his personal style. As such, the episode gives important insights into his emerging approach to leadership.

“He’s a great consensus leader, somebody who will rally a group once they’ve got agreement and happily run with it,” said Rep. Timothy J. Penny (D-Minn.). “But he’s not a leader to take a strong position and make it happen by sheer force of will.”

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Penny is among the conservative and moderate Democrats who met twice with Clinton at the White House on Tuesday to talk over their reservations about the plan. Clinton had the members awe-struck as he delved into the budgetary minutiae of the program, seemingly crunching numbers forward and backward and inside out.

He told them that the plan is critical to the country’s future and argued that in the last analysis the deficit-cutting blueprint does far more good than harm. Adopting the manner of a sort of New Age therapist, Clinton shared the lawmakers’ pain and tried to bring them to his side through logic and suasion without disagreeable personal friction.

Did the President ever try to make them sweat?

“No, he didn’t seem to,” Penny said. “Any group that goes over there feels like they’ve had a very polite dialogue with the President. He wasn’t a bowl of Jell-O or anything.” But, “this is his personal style.”

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Rep. Bill Orton (D-Utah) said he came away from the same meetings with an impression of great flexibility. While Clinton argued that some kind of gas tax increase is essential to the plan, “the impression I got is everything is on the table,” Orton said. “He wanted us to reason together.”

He said Clinton told the group that if they could not see their way to buying the plan, they should cancel plans to leave Washington next week and thrash out a new budget during the August recess.

Clinton has used the same light touch with some of the senators who are on the fence--the so-called “shakies.”

The President had seven Cabinet secretaries call on the fence-sitting Dianne Feinstein and invited the California Democrat to the White House family quarters Sunday for a private chat. After a few moments of banter about Clinton’s golf game, it was Feinstein who brought the conversation around to the point of her visit: “I know why I’m here. Let me tell you what I have to say,” she told him.

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In the course of the 45-minute meeting, neither Clinton nor other members of his sales force asked for her vote. “They really didn’t, it’s fair to say,” Feinstein said.

Likewise, Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.) said he was not pressed to commit. Breaux said he believes such efforts to get a lawmaker to commit are important. “You’ve got to close the deal,” he said.

Clinton seemed reluctant to try to pin down votes earlier in his term as well.

In May, when the House voted on the budget bill, Democrats were ecstatic when Clinton plunged into the effort of trying to win over wavering party members. Clinton even called junior lawmakers, spending as much as 45 minutes on the phone with each of them.

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But afterward, when House leaders tried to corner the undecided lawmakers, they found that Clinton had chewed over the lawmakers’ concerns but had never really gotten around to asking for their votes. Horrified, the Democratic leadership contacted the White House with a clear message: Clinton must ask.

“He got the message, and he started doing it,” an aide said.

Earlier presidents, of course, have used bullying tactics and promises to great effect. They have offered federal projects as rewards and threatened to cut federal spending in a lawmaker’s state or district as punishment.

Lyndon B. Johnson threatened to disclose the name of a Southern senator’s mistress to get the man to go along with him--according to legend at least.

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Clinton tried a small measure of browbeating tactics earlier this year, but the effort failed.

The Administration tried to punish Sen. Richard C. Shelby (D-Ala.) by threatening to move some National Aeronautics and Space Administration jobs to Texas. The threat was never carried out, but it backfired by making Shelby something of a hero in his home state.

With every Democratic vote crucial, “the White House can’t afford to have a bunch of Shelbys scattered around the Senate,” Penny said.

Clinton may simply have little enthusiasm for the dreary job of pinning down votes, which, other Administration officials attest, is just about as enjoyable as selling insurance.

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Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, one of the Administration’s point men on the economic plan, confided with a fatigued sigh this week that he now seems to spend all his time on Capitol Hill.

“I feel like the lowest-paid lobbyist in town,” he said.

But Beschloss said it is difficult to understand why Clinton would not use all levers available to him, considering how much is at stake for him and his party in the budget bill.

“This is a time when he is trying to demonstrate Democratic authority--and his ability not to be rolled,” he said. “If he’s defeated, it will suggest that (lawmakers) don’t need to be afraid of him.”

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And next year, with elections coming up, and more crucial Clinton legislation at stake, “it will be every man and woman for themselves,” Beschloss said.

He said Clinton’s approach is surprising, considering that during his years in Arkansas the former governor was the most aggressive kind of buttonholer. “He was somebody who would follow legislators home to their doorstep to get them to do it his way,” Beschloss said.

Still, George Christian, who was a press secretary to Johnson, said the strong-arm approach may simply be all wrong for a President who started out with 43% of the vote and has seen his popular support ebb even further since then.

“This approach doesn’t work unless you’ve got broad grass-roots support,” said Christian, now a political consultant in Austin, Tex. “There’s no fear factor in many of these states.”

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Christian said he believes that congressional awe of the presidency has receded so much that pressure tactics have not worked since perhaps the early days of Richard Nixon’s first term.

“There’s less respect for the White House, no matter who’s in it,” he said.


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