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The 1993 1/2 Clinton Pulls Onto The Track


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THE 1993 1/2 CLINTON PULLS ONTO THE TRACK

The first Clinton Administration is dead. Hail to the new Clinton Administration.

That, at least, is the tune that some Democrats are singing amid signs that President Clinton is steering his drifting ship of state toward the political center.

During his first 100 days, Clinton's initial focus on deficit cutting and economic stimulus was obscured by such issues as gay rights, abortion, "diversity," and a profusion of White House initiatives. The impression, says a party moderate, "was of an agenda that was skewed to the left. We saw the Clinton who worked for McGovern in '72, not the man who headed the [centrist] Democratic Leadership Council" in 1989-90.

The perception that Clinton was edging out of the cultural mainstream--heightened by fears of a health-care plan financed with stiff new taxes--sent his poll ratings down and triggered intensive White House strategy sessions. Although talks are ongoing, White House advisers say the President is weighing steps to shake his image as a traditional Democrat--and rekindle his appeal to swing voters. Among the options:

--Send in the grown-ups. Until now, Clinton has shown unswerving faith in his White House crew of youthful former campaign aides, known collectively as "the children" on Capitol Hill. But the President now believes that an inexperienced White House team, presided over by Chief of Staff Thomas F. McLarty III, has failed to exercise coherent management over the Administration. Says a senior White House official: "Mack has too much on his plate."

A Washington neophyte whose overwhelmed deputy is 36-year-old Mark D. Gearan, McLarty is expected to appoint Roy M. Neel, an aide to Vice-President Al Gore, to help run operations. Insiders also say that a Clinton intimate may be named counselor and given the difficult task of keeping Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton from flooding the Hill with liberal nostrums. "Clinton needs a counselor who focuses on the budget, health care, and whatever foreign crises come up--and obliterates everything else," says one adviser.

Meanwhile, communications czar George R. Stephanopoulos, who alienated the press by keeping it at bay, will curb his public role, ostensibly to focus on strategy. He has "gotten too glamorous too fast," says a party veteran.

Until now, White House political aides have been a remarkably insular bunch. Increasingly, though, they are seeking the advice of veteran Democratic pols. "A lot of people who weren't asked into the Administration are smiling today," says one such operative. "We predicted this crew would go four months, screw up, and start asking for help."

--Rediscover the economy. Although Clinton began his Presidency with spending restraint and competitiveness as overarching themes, he now concedes that his eagerness to solve social problems contributed to the Administration's policy vertigo. As a result, he is focusing more of his public exhortations on the need to pass his budget, and with it, a long-term investment strategy.

Although some deny it, there are also signs that Clinton's moderate economic team--Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, Budget Director Leon E. Panetta, National Economic Council honcho Robert E. Rubin--are pressuring for more disciplined, less interventionist policies. Panetta has warned openly that unless Clinton delays the North American Free Trade Agreement and his health-care blueprint, he risks sinking his entire economic program.

The health plan has become a particular target of centrists. In an Apr. 29 briefing by health coordinator Ira C. Magaziner, stunned Clinton economic aides were told the plan could cost the government upwards of $100 billion in new spending a year. Publicly, Rubin insists that "Ira has done a magnificent job." Privately, Clinton's economists have begun a campaign to limit the program's scope and to cut the burden on companies and the middle class. "There is a great deal of concern among the President's economic advisers that we not take on more than the system can bear," says one Clinton confidant.As the Administration's leading conservative, Treasury's Bentsen has become especially active in the drive to guide policy back toward the center. He has emerged as an increasingly vocal critic of medical price controls, bellicose trade rhetoric, and overregulation of business. Even Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, a liberal, has changed his tune. Reich recently disappointed union allies by endorsing NAFTA, and he's among those urging caution on health care.

--Get back to the future. Concerned about the liberal cast of Clinton's early policies, aides have begun consultations with DLC President Al From and key moderates. The results are already evident: On Apr. 30--day 101 of the re-tooled Clinton Presidency--the First Wonk journeyed to New Orleans. There, to cheers of DLC members, he unveiled a plan to offer $10,000 in college loans to young people in exchange for two years of public service.

The national-service plan is the first of a series of new centrist initiatives Clinton will unleash. In July, there will be a plan to streamline government. This fall, he'll announce a proposal to step up training of welfare mothers--and to cut off benefits after two years. The crime issue, which dropped off Clinton's radar screen in Phase I of his Presidential odyssey, will make a comeback, too. During budget talks, he'll lobby hard for more funds for law enforcement. The intent, says From, "is to reinforce the themes of opportunity, responsibility, and community."

Will any of it work? Maybe. Many analysts believe that, although Clinton's leftward lurch has cost him some crucial support among business, independents, and GOP moderates, he still has time to recoup with a return to middle-class themes. "It'll be difficult to get back on his message," says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "But Clinton has shown that he can keep reinventing himself." Presto! Ladies and gentlemen...meet the New Clinton.

TABLE: PUSH-PULL IN THE CLINTON WHITE HOUSE

TRUE BELIEVERS

Worried that the recovery has stalled, liberals want to revive the President's stimulus package

Trade czar Mickey Kantor and others want Japan to agree to market-share targets

Health guru Ira Magaziner wants reform that pairs big benefits with stiff new taxes

Activists have prodded Clinton to move on issues such as abortion rights and gays in the military

PRAGMATISTS

Moderates, led by Lloyd Bentsen, believe long-term investment is more important than stimulus

Bentsenites scoff at market-share targets and fret that the approach could trigger a trade war

Economic advisers oppose price controls and want a limited health-reform plan

Moderates urge the Prez to stress crime prevention, welfare reform, and "New-Democrat" issues

DATA: BUSINESS WEEKLee Walczak and Susan B. Garland in Washington


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