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The Black Caucus Has Clinton Running Scared


Washington Outlook

THE BLACK CAUCUS HAS CLINTON RUNNING SCARED

In the midst of festivities celebrating the Israeli-Jordanian entente, President Clinton was busy trying to negotiate another peace accord--this one with the Congressional Black Caucus. On July 26, he met with caucus members, who are steamed over his Haiti policy and his stance on a pending crime bill. Clinton had little choice. He desperately needs to mend relations with the 40-member caucus for upcoming votes on health-care and welfare reform. Says a top White House aide: "The President was concerned that this group know that they are valuable members of the team."

The caucus is hardly Clinton's only problem on the left. Liberals are sore that he crusaded for deficit reduction rather than a major expansion in social spending. Labor is angry that Clinton pushed harder for NAFTA than for the failed striker-replacement bill. And feminists fear he will abandon abortion coverage in his zeal for health-care compromise. "He can't walk away from his solidest troops," declares Representative Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), who has threatened to lead a liberal revolt against a watered-down health-care bill.

Yet this rightward tilt was inevitable. Clinton relied on liberals to get elected and needs their support for his legislative agenda. But he also must broaden his appeal to moderate swing voters. And to eke out victories on Capitol Hill, he needs to cut deals with moderate and conservative Democrats. Liberals will feel even more left out if the GOP, as expected, makes major gains in the midterm elections. Says Erwin C. Hargrove, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University: "He's caught between the organized constituencies that he needs to pass programs and public opinion, which is less liberal."

The constituency posing the biggest problem is the Congressional Black Caucus. It has stuck by Clinton's legislative programs even though members were upset that he dropped his urban jobs program and abandoned civil-rights-post nominee Lani Guinier in the face of conservative pressure. But the caucus is furious that Clinton has distanced himself from a provision in the crime bill that would allow racial data to be used to challenge the death penalty. "This is a question of principle," says Representative Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.)

The caucus may send Clinton a message by helping the GOP block a floor vote on the crime bill. It's also demanding that the Administration try to preserve minority congressional districts under assault in the courts. And it wants an extensive jobs program to accompany the proposed two-year limit on welfare benefits. But that could doom reform. "If they raise the ante, there could be no bill or a Republican bill," says a White House official.

FLORIO EFFECT. With liberals in a funk, Democrats might pay a price at the polls. "If people are not enthusiastic, they are not going to work for a candidate," says a union official. Low voter turnout could also be a disaster. When former New Jersey Governor Jim Florio tried to run for reelection as a New Democrat in 1993, low black voter turnout sealed his defeat. "If the choices Clinton makes are toward the New Democrat direction, he will face the same problems as Florio," warns David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political & Economic Studies, a Washington think tank.

That may be. But if Clinton moves to the left, he risks

alienating the independent and blue-collar voters he also needs. Clintonites are praying they can continue to finesse the New Democrat message and Old Democrat support. But at some point, worried liberals may force Clinton to answer the question in that old union song: "Which side are you on?"EDITED BY STAN CROCK Susan B. Garland and Richard S. Dunham


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