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NEWS ANALYSIS : Clinton Stakes Ground Claimed by the GOP

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

It was a stunning sign of the times when President Clinton, early in his State of the Union address, declared, “The era of big government is over.”

No other sentence in Clinton’s 61-minute speech so dramatically captured the ideological climate that now defines American politics--or the narrow line the president hopes to walk to reelection.

By identifying himself with the populist recoil against “big government” that propelled the GOP to control of Congress in the 1994 elections, Clinton aims to deny Republicans a sharp ideological debate about the role of Washington in national life--even while using his veto pen to frustrate their most ambitious efforts to actually shrink the federal government.

Like his earlier decision to issue his own seven-year plan to balance the federal budget, Tuesday night’s speech thus continued Clinton’s effort to frame the 1996 debate between the parties as a disagreement over “means not ends,” as Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank, puts it.

Since last summer, that tactic has proven enormously effective for Clinton, allowing him to simultaneously present himself as an advocate for reform and a buffer against what he terms “extreme” GOP proposals to retrench the federal government.

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In his speech Tuesday night, Clinton repeatedly appropriated themes Republicans want to claim as their own--revitalizing the civic society of neighborhood, church and voluntary organizations, affirming the primacy of family--at the same time he underscored his disagreements with the GOP on such issues as environmental protection, where he believes he holds the upper hand.

As Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole’s response demonstrated, Clinton’s success at seizing the middle ground has left the Republicans with an overriding political priority for 1996: convincing the country that while Clinton professes to share the goal of a leaner and less expensive government, his true aim is to impede reform on behalf of powerful Democratic constituencies.

Repeatedly in his nationally televised remarks, Dole declared that Clinton had “chosen to defend the status quo” by vetoing GOP initiatives.

“While the president’s words speak of change, his deeds are a contradiction,” Dole said. “The president claims to embrace the future while clinging to the policy of the past.”

Just as Clinton sought to downplay the ideological distance between the parties, Dole attempted to widen it.

Those Republican arguments are only one of the political challenges confronting Clinton. As he walked onto the podium last night, he faced continuing risks from the stalemate on the budget and the ongoing Whitewater investigations that will compel First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to make an unprecedented appearance before a grand jury Friday.

But his position has improved dramatically since he delivered his rambling and disorganized 81-minute State of the Union address to the new Republican Congress one year ago. Then, Clinton seemed shellshocked; last night, he spoke with the confidence of a man who consistently leads the GOP contenders in polls measuring early support for next fall’s election.

If the Tuesday night speech demonstrated why Clinton has so frustrated Republicans in the past six months, it also illuminated the price of his success. The government reform and individual responsibility themes struck by Clinton have always been part of his message; but through the first two years of his presidency he balanced those traditionally conservative themes with efforts to launch new government assaults on persistent social problems.

But now, to blur the ideological contrast with the Republicans, Clinton has been forced to curtail--to the brink of abandonment--his 1992 vision of invigorating the economy and reviving the inner cities with infusions of new “public investment,” while salving middle-class anxiety with government-ensured health care.

Speaking to reporters before the speech, White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta said Clinton and the Republicans were offering “competing visions . . . as to where this country needs to go.”

In a broad sense, that’s undeniable: The differences between Clinton and congressional Republicans over Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, tax cuts and regulations are substantial and perhaps unbridgeable.

While many Republicans believe that simply reducing government is the key to prosperity, Clinton stressed that he continues to see a role for Washington in helping “all our people to make the most of their own lives.” After insisting that the era of big government had ended, he immediately added: “But we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.”

Clinton’s criticism of tobacco advertising aimed at young people, his defense of environmental regulation, his praise of ideas such as national education standards, expanded access to job training, a new public-private partnership to increase use of computers in schools all reminded that the president envisions a government spending and doing more than the Republicans.

But these differences occur within the context of an overall debate that has shifted sharply toward the right. The few new government spending initiatives Clinton proposed to flesh out his seven “challenges” to the nation--a new “merit scholarship” program for top high school students, an expansion of work-study programs--are so modest as to mock the billowing ambitions that he carried into office. Where once Clinton called for government to guarantee health care to all Americans, he now asked only that it make it easier for workers to carry it with them when they change jobs.

In that sense, Clinton’s eulogy for big government is more than rhetorical positioning: It reflects the reality that for the foreseeable future, no matter who holds the White House, the dominant thrust in national policy will be to reduce the federal government’s size and reach. The question at stake in 1996 is how far and how fast that retrenchment proceeds--not whether it will be reversed.

The remaining ideological disagreement between the parties over government’s role will be only one component of November’s election. Just as important--if not more so--will be the public response to a different set of arguments the president deployed in his speech.

Four years ago, Bill Clinton won the presidency largely by convincing Americans he understood their anxieties about the future better than George Bush. Last night, Clinton began a quest to convince the nation that he is leading the way beyond those anxieties into what he called a “an age of possibility.”

Treading carefully to avoid seeming insensitive to economically insecure voters, Clinton nonetheless made a spirited case that Americans are better off than when he took office.

“Our economy is the healthiest it has been in three decades,” Clinton asserted, citing figures on unemployment, job creation, new business formation and auto production. Likewise, he touted figures showing that crime, the welfare rolls and teen pregnancy have all declined since he took office--and he plausibly claimed progress on international problems from Bosnia and Haiti to the Middle East.

Clinton’s upbeat litany reflected a fundamental political reality: It is difficult for an incumbent president to win reelection if Americans are dissatisfied with the country’s direction. In recent polls, fully two-thirds of Americans have said they consider the country to be on the wrong track. No matter what the polls today say about his standing against Dole or other Republicans, if Clinton cannot dispel that pessimism in the months ahead, he is likely to face many anxious nights next fall.


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