HOUSTON -- One of the things you do in politics if things turn sour is to try to change the subject. Bill Clinton has done just that with the economic plan he put before the U.S. Conference of Mayors here.
There is, of course, some obvious risk in the Democratic candidate's plan for providing more help for the disadvantaged and increasing taxes on the wealthy to pay for part of it. Clinton now will be targeted by the Republicans as another "tax and spend liberal" in the mold of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.
But Clinton's initiative has accomplished two important political goals. It has changed the subject away from his escalating feud with Jesse Jackson over Clinton's criticism of rap singer Sister Souljah. And, for the first time in weeks, it has put Clinton on the offensive in the contest with President Bush and independent candidate Ross Perot.
The Clinton strategists believe -- and most but not all political professionals seem to agree -- that the Arkansas governor was wise to take a swipe at Jackson on the Sister Souljah question. The Clinton operatives have understood they could not risk the perception that Clinton, like Mondale and Dukakis before him, was dancing on Jesse Jackson's string. Such an image is poison with the white working-class "Reagan Democrats" who deserted the party in the past three elections.
But the response of Jackson has been more intense and prolonged than the Clinton managers expected. The civil rights leader has used the controversy to propel himself back onto the front pages and the television networks by accusing Clinton of displaying a "character flaw" by criticizing Sister Souljah rather than providing an urban agenda. Until this episode, non-candidate Jackson found himself ignored by the news media on which he feeds.
The Clinton-Jackson row went on so long that it seemed to trivialize the Democratic nominee. While President Bush was signing a missile treaty with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, there was Clinton bickering about whether he had violated Jackson's hospitality by attacking a rap singer at a meeting of the Rainbow Coalition. Now Clinton has moved on to the serious matters that Jackson ostensibly gives the highest priority. So the ball is in Jackson's court. His complaints about Clinton have become old news.
The economic plan also was important politically because it provided a reason for other black political leaders such as Mayors Maynard Jackson of Atlanta, Sharpe James of Newark and Norman Rice of Seattle to line up with him at this
conference. If Clinton has sacrificed some black support by feuding with Jesse Jackson, it is clear at least that he has not sacrificed all black support.
Clinton still will be obliged to deal with Jackson at some stage in the campaign before the Democratic National Convention opening in New York in three weeks. But the economic plan gives him at least a bargaining chip and puts pressure on Jackson to deal with him in terms of issues rather than personal pique.
Jackson's potential for political mischief is still significant. Some of his backers want him on the ticket for vice president, which Clinton clearly does not intend to consider. Some Democrats fear that Jerry Brown will use his delegates to put Jackson's name before the convention even if Clinton has made another choice, as is likely.
The trick for Clinton now is to settle the Jackson matter in a way that does not seem to be backing down or offering concessions to Jackson. Neither Mondale in 1984 nor Dukakis in 1988 made any substantial concessions to Jackson. But they did treat him ++ with kid gloves and give him a major voice at their conventions, thus feeding the perception they were caving in to him.
This time, Jackson does not have the stature he enjoyed in the past two campaigns as a competing candidate who had won his own delegates. That is one of the reasons he seized on the Sister Souljah incident with such alacrity and intensity; it provided a way into the action.
But Clinton has turned the page with his economic plan. There are features of his program that Jackson and other leaders of minority groups may not find totally satisfying. But there is, as politicians like to say, "something on the table" that is more substantial than a personal rhubarb with Jesse Jackson.