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Clinton Deals From Deck of Values Cards as Vote Nears

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Youth curfews. School uniforms. And maybe coming soon, a proposed constitutional amendment to guarantee victims’ rights.

All have this in common: They have scant chance of becoming federal policy, yet they’re a part of a values agenda that is an ever more prominent part of President Clinton’s reelection campaign. He has been dishing out such proposals nearly one a week, with a pile prepared to go, right through to election day five months from now.

The offerings serve the purpose of reminding voters of Clinton’s mainstream views--and, not incidentally, depriving his GOP adversaries of a foothold on the issue of “values” that generally has been a weak point for Democrats since George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign.

But now even some Democrats are wondering whether Clinton’s offensive, successful as the polls suggest it has been, is quickly reaching a point of diminishing returns.

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Some fear that as he reaches ever further afield, he may be setting himself up for charges of election year opportunism and for practicing “me-tooism” when he mimics the GOP agenda.

“He’s running for sheriff!” one Democratic senator exclaimed at a recent caucus, referring to Clinton’s stress on social discipline.

Al From, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Conference, believes Clinton has been precisely right to stress his moderate views on social issues. But he worries that the profusion of new proposals may eventually distract from the main features of the administration’s social agenda, such as Clinton’s pledge to reform welfare.

“There’s a point after which you’ve got to be careful,” From said. ". . . He’s made the essential points that he needs to make, and now he needs to concentrate on delivering the big [reforms].”

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In at least two cases, Clinton has gained headlines while embracing issues in which the federal role would be minimal, at best.

He generated extensive news coverage last week in New Orleans when he offered localities federal help in designing curfew programs. The notion was not news to most cities: Almost three-fourths of the biggest ones already have curfews in some form.

Clinton got a good splash of publicity early in the year when he proposed to help schools develop plans for uniforms. But that issue, too, is almost entirely a local matter.

Currently, the idea of a constitutional amendment to protect victims’ rights has gained “good muzzle velocity” in White House policy circles, as one official put it.

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But an embrace of such an amendment would no doubt prompt Republicans to charge that Clinton is merely parroting presumed Republican nominee Bob Dole, who broached the idea in a major speech on crime last week.

Additionally, some Justice Department officials, and even presidential advisors, have been complaining about the notion of tinkering with the Constitution--a practice administration officials deplored even this week in response to the continued GOP push for an amendment requiring a balanced budget.

Of course, if Clinton does embrace a victims’ rights amendment, it will probably join a stack of others that have been offered by members of Congress only to languish because winning the necessary approval of two-thirds of each chamber is very difficult.

But that may be just the point. Clinton can offer the proposal in an election year without much concern that it would do harm to the revered document.

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Clinton came in for a barrage of GOP criticism last month when he made approving noises about the controversial Republican-backed Wisconsin welfare reform plan. Even some Democrats agree the opposition had a point.

“That was the ultimate me-tooism,” said one Democratic aide in the Senate.

Still, more proposals on values are in sight.

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The White House is at work on a proposal to help localities crack down on truancy. Democratic allies believe Clinton may also offer proposals in the coming weeks to help cleanse television of sex and violence, get tough on teen crime and to press errant fathers to stay with their families.

So far, congressional Democrats have had little to say about Clinton’s embrace of curfews, school uniforms and the like. This lack of a reaction has surprised some, given that these proposals raise civil rights concerns, historically important to the party’s liberal wing.

For now, however, few Democrats want to tamper with what appears to be a winning formula for Clinton (and perhaps the party’s hopes of regaining control of Congress).

But some Democratic lawmakers say their attitude may change if Clinton’s echoes of Republican themes begin to threaten positions they care deeply about.

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The talk in recent days that Clinton would advocate a major across-the-board tax cut was watched with rising anxiety among Capitol Hill Democrats, one senior aide said, because it threatened to draw the president “way too far across the line.”


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