Clinton Again Plays His ‘New Democrat’ Card : Politics: ‘Reinventing government’ is a way for the President to get back on track with the moderate voters who put him in office.

<i> Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as Walter F. Mondale's campaign manager in 1984</i>

Be honest. When you heard President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore announce a program to “reinvent government,” you laughed, right! Heard that one before, hadn’t you? Cut 252,000 federal jobs? Yeah, right.

A Democratic President cutting 252,000 mostly public-employee union jobs? Same unions that are the fastest-growing organizations and vote overwhelmingly Democratic? Get a life! Consolidate programs that are near and dear to the liberals in the party? Sure, no problem! Close regional offices of the Agriculture Department and Housing and Urban Development? What are you smoking? Take power away from the powerful appropriation-committee bulls like Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia? In your dreams.

Well, all you cynics take note. The unions are publicly supportive, but privately furious; liberals on the Hill are more than suspicious; old Democratic bulls like Byrd are ready to fight any encroachment on their territory, and all of this is exactly what Clinton needs. A battle over reinventing government, or “rego” for short, is brewing between Clinton and key democratic constituencies. If Clinton wins--and I think he will--it will be his most important victory to date.

Clinton ran for President as a “New Democrat.” He said it was time to change the image of the Democratic Party from the tax-and-spend, special-interest-group party to a forward-looking party ready to use the government where necessary--but not to rely on government as the answer to every problem.


No longer would the Democratic Party be beholden to unions and minorities, an image that cost the party election after election. Clinton went out of his way to avoid the very symbols that plagued the candidacies of Walter F. Mondale and Michael S. Dukakis.

He never fully embraced the labor movement, he shied away from being identified with special interests of the party, and he even confronted Jesse Jackson over Sister Souljah. The public liked this brand of Democrat--he was particularly pleasing to those former Democrats who had abandoned the party over these very issues. Now they could come home again. Finally, a Democrat they could vote for.

But shortly after he was elected, Clinton seemed to abandon the new “D” for the traditional, old “D.” Gays in the military, affirmative action in presidential appointments, socializing with the Hollywood-liberal celebrity crowd and, finally, the unkindest cut of all, a tax bill right after campaigning for a tax cut. Where had the “New Democrat” gone?

As his polls crashed and his advisers sensed the public felt betrayed, Clinton knew he had to rekindle the spirit of the New Democrat. Working to that effect, advice came publicly and privately from the moderate Democratic Leadership Council (the moderate conservative group who was Clinton’s major support in ’92); members of Congress, and from Al From, the DLC director. The message was clear: “You got here, pal, talking about personal responsibility, less government and fewer taxes on the middle class. You couldn’t deliver on taxes, so you damn well better deliver on less government.” It was all basically paraphrasing the old saw, “You should dance with the one who brung ya.” Not only, said these friends, is it the honest thing to do, it is, politically, the right thing to do.


So, the Administration quickly came up with a hard-line crime bill, talk of welfare reform--and, the best move of all, “reinventing government.” Here, Clinton at last had an issue that was in sync with the public. Even his political enemies, Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) and Ross Perot, were forced publicly to applaud the effort.

If ever the public demanded streamlined government, it is now. If ever moderate and conservative Democrats needed an issue to balance their support of the Clinton tax plan vote, it is this. If ever there was an issue that Clinton could use in a showdown with the unions, the left and the special interests of his party, it is this. No wonder the Al and Bill traveling roadshow to sell “rego” is already running at full speed. They may even pull out the old buses!

This is not to say that “rego” is a done deal. Having dealt extensively with labor and other interests of the Democratic Party over the years, I have learned never to underestimate their formidable capabilities. Organized labor, for example, may not be able to pass its legislative agenda, but it is a past master at blocking legislation it doesn’t like. But this time, Clinton has a powerful ally--the public. Anything perceived as making government leaner and more responsive is music to the ears of voters. If asked to join the fight--they will.

The unions will grumble, the left will scream, the old bulls on the Hill will put up one last charge--but, in the end, this is the right issue at the right time. Let the cynics laugh. This time, government may well be reinvented. The public and Clinton will be big winners and they, not the cynics, will get the last laugh.