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NEWS ANALYSIS : Clinton as ‘Reaganesque’? Just Ask the Republicans : Presidency: GOP insiders see predecessor’s ‘Teflon’ coat and upbeat outlook. But some say he tests limits.

TIMES WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

They still call him “Slick Willie” and seldom miss an opportunity to criticize his policies or attack his personal character. Yet to their own surprise and frustration, some of Bill Clinton’s Republican critics are applying another label to the President these days:

They say he is “Reaganesque.”

What they mean is not that Clinton has adopted former President Ronald Reagan’s conservative ideology but that he has the “Great Communicator’s” seeming ability to defy political gravity.

Despite a drumbeat of controversy over his private conduct, the President has risen markedly in the public opinion polls. And, despite outspoken congressional opposition from Democrats as well as Republicans to key proposals such as health care reform, Clinton’s foes no longer discount his capacity for an effective counterattack.

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“A lesser politician,” said Republican pollster Richard B. Wirthlin, would have “crashed and burned a long time ago.” Wirthlin, a close adviser to Reagan while he was President, says that while he disagrees with Clinton on most major issues, he is “a superb politician.”

Clinton’s standing in the polls can be attributed partly to a rebounding economy. Also, many Americans who viewed him as a loser after his early setbacks in Congress have begun to change their mind following his successful uphill fights for the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Brady gun-control law.

However, some Republicans, as well as Clinton’s own aides, attribute a large part of his political resilience to his personal style and skills. The former Arkansas governor has projected himself as an activist President who tackles major problems no matter how controversial. He has also been quick to exploit issues that start to zoom high on the public’s agenda--whether they are traditionally associated with Democrats or with Republicans.

On crime, for example, Clinton has irritated some liberals and stirred indignation among conservatives by championing the “three strikes and you’re out” proposal for convicted felons and other hard-line measures that were once the almost-exclusive property of the GOP.

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He also maintains an optimistic attitude in public, even in the face of setbacks, mistakes and negative news stories. Americans tend to find that a likable quality in a President, political strategists agree.

Michael K. Deaver, Reagan’s chief image-maker, used to say he didn’t worry about negative news “if I could just get Reagan’s smiling face on television.” Deaver says Clinton “has the same kind of appeal--normally with a smile on his face and an attitude of enthusiasm about what he’s doing. And that goes a long way.”

Lyn Nofziger, a GOP political consultant who was also a top aide to Reagan, rates Clinton as “damn good” at making speeches and says he is a better explainer than Reagan. “He’s like down-home folks, and he’s always talking in terms of helping people.

“Reagan was always pretty self-deprecating, which people appreciated, but Clinton’s every bit as good, and he’s smoother at kidding himself without it appearing contrived.”

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To be sure, some Republicans--and some Democrats--see Clinton’s political skills in a less flattering light. In this view, he uses his persuasive manner and personal charm not just to advance his programs but to manipulate and deceive.

GOP Chairman Haley Barbour calls Clinton “very bright, a good talker and tremendous performer,” but he adds that “the people in Arkansas gave him the name ‘Slick Willie’ because he’s very nimble, agile, in getting a conversation back to what he wants to talk about--and what he says often has nothing in common with what he does.”

Most recent polls show Clinton with relatively strong approval ratings, somewhere above 50%, although much of his support is soft. Wirthlin’s current surveys show about one-third of the electorate passionately dislikes Clinton and another third strongly backs him. In Wirthlin’s polls, the President wins a 58% overall approval rating by gaining the conditional support of most of those who are somewhere in the middle.

The softness of his support among these swing voters could become a serious problem for Clinton. He is heading into some of the biggest policy fights of his presidency, including efforts to overhaul both the health care and welfare systems. Next fall’s congressional elections will inevitably be read as a referendum on his performance. And he faces all this with at least two question marks hanging over his head:

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Character: The recurrent allegations of Clinton’s extramarital sexual exploits do not fit easily with traditional ideals of what a President should be. Moreover, Clinton’s apparent impulse to try to talk his way out of difficult situations, to equivocate and be less than fully candid when he feels pressured, could yet erode public confidence in his trustworthiness.

Whitewater: The Arkansas real estate deal involving the First Family remains a serious distraction and could become very damaging if the special counsel investigating the matter turns up legal or ethical violations.

So far, a majority of voters apparently have not construed these issues as indicative of Clinton’s fundamental character. Concerned about the economy and their own futures--and predisposed to think well of their President--they have taken him as he presents himself: An imperfect but well-meaning leader who is determined to confront long-festering national problems.

But that assessment is far from secure, in part because of the intensity of his opposition.

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Perhaps not since the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration has a President stirred such personal animosity. Other political leaders have been subjected to far greater indignities and personal ridicule--most recently Vice President Dan Quayle. But Clinton, like Roosevelt, stirs a degree of sustained outrage among some opponents that amounts to contempt.

Former Democratic Party Chairman Robert S. Strauss, who served as President George Bush’s ambassador to the former Soviet republics, said in a recent interview: “I was a young man during Roosevelt’s time, but I can tell you Clinton’s political detractors dislike him with even more intensity than they disliked Roosevelt.

“They say he doesn’t deserve the presidency. The hatred has a moralistic and militaristic dimension. And they can’t stand for him to succeed. When he pulled off the Saudi plane sale, it drove his enemies crazy. They said, ‘The son of a bitch ought to be a salesman, that’s all he can do.’ They terribly resent his wife being involved in the Administration, and they direct a lot of venom and fire at her.”

In particular, these foes have sought to capitalize on Clinton’s avoidance of military service during the Vietnam War and the allegations of extramarital affairs to brand him as an untrustworthy womanizer and a draft-dodger.

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Perhaps the most tireless of Clinton’s pursuers is Little Rock lawyer Cliff Jackson, a former classmate of Clinton’s at Oxford University. Jackson was instrumental in bringing forward the Arkansas state troopers who charged that Clinton, while governor, used them to arrange and cover up affairs with several women.

Jackson says his crusade is driven by what he sees as Clinton’s “casual willingness to deceive, to exploit and to manipulate in order to obtain personal and political power.” Clinton, Jackson has said, “is very, very good at appearing sincere” but has “a drive to power unsurpassed by any individual I’ve ever seen.”

Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) is another Clinton foe who argues that the President’s political skills are in service to a deeply flawed character. Radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh and the conservative magazine American Spectator also have made Clinton-bashing a staple of their offerings.

For his part, the President, in an interview broadcast Friday night on PBS’ “Washington Week in Review,” said: “There is not one single shred of evidence that anybody here has tried to abuse the authority of the presidency, tried to use it for personal gain--not me, not any of my top aides.

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“There have been no scandals in this Administration. And I was governor for 12 years--not a hint of scandal.”

Publicly, Clinton tends to slough off the personal attacks as part of what he calls today’s “highly competitive political environment.” He compares himself to a TV cartoon character, saying: “I’m a lot like Baby Huey . . . if you push me down, I keep coming back. I just keep coming back.”

Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), who is credited with coining the phrase “Teflon President” to describe Reagan because negative news seldom stuck to him, likens Clinton and his top White House aides--most of them also quite young--to the “Energizer bunny” in the TV commercials for batteries.

“They just pound, pound, pound, and keep right on going,” she said. “You can say a lot about this President, but you can’t say he’s lazy.”

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However, Schroeder and other Democratic supporters of Clinton say they worry that in his hyperactive mode he “flirts with danger.” At times, they say, he may be too flippant and impulsive in discussing his own personal conduct and raising subjects that could tarnish his image.

They cite the recent incident when he regaled assembly line workers at a Shreveport, La., General Motors plant with reminiscences about the pickup he drove as a youth. Clinton said he covered the truck’s metal bed with Astroturf, adding: “You don’t want to know why, but I did.” He later told disbelieving radio talk-show host Don Imus that he put the Astroturf down to protect his luggage.

“I could have done without the Astroturf talk. He ain’t paid to be funny. But it does show that while he can be as intellectual as anyone; he still can talk to Bubba or Joe Sixpack,” a senior aide said.

Similarly, after hearing Clinton on the Imus show, Nofziger said: “I was impressed as hell with the guy. He came across as a very likable guy who doesn’t appear to be too impressed with himself.”

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Others see a greater potential for damage.

Clinton, says Doug Bailey, a veteran Republican political strategist, “is like the moth and the candle. He gets as close as he can to the flame. But he’s got energy and commitment and is an incredible salesman, and in that sense he’s Reaganesque. The passion is certainly there. But the way he likes to get close to the flame, God knows what might happen down the road.”


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