Honeymoon, Sourmoon


President-elect Clinton has just tossed his Haiti policy on a growing junkpile of discarded campaign promises, and none too soon. Had he stuck with his irresponsible attacks on Bush administration efforts to discourage a flood of boat people from seeking asylum in this country, his inauguration could have been marred by drownings on the high seas and southern Florida overwhelmed again.

Jousting with a press that is denying him a honeymoon, Mr. Clinton contends that a person in his position has to respond to "changing circumstances." Yet no circumstances on Haiti have changed since he assailed President Bush last summer for policies he described as "callous" and "illegal" and "immoral." Now he accepts them. Maybe he could get away with such tactics down home in Arkansas, but it won't work in Washington.

Example: Mr. Clinton in dropping another irresponsible campaign pitch -- this one for a "middle class tax cut" -- rightly said he wanted to go after the "big things": economic stimulus, deficit reduction and health care. During the New Hampshire primary, his commercials said his economic program "starts with a tax cut for the middle class."

Example: During the campaign he promised to halve the deficit in four years even though projections from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office suggested otherwise and many economists insisted his arithmetic didn't add up. Now he is correctly facing realities but blaming his retreat on phony numbers from the Bush administration.

There are doubts, too, about some nominees.

Zoe Baird, his nominee for attorney general, admits to having broken two federal laws by hiring two illegal immigrants as domestic servants and then failing to report and pay Social Security taxes on their salaries. Her confirmation is in doubt. Ron Brown, his Commerce-secretary designate, had to cancel an inauguration gala paid for by big corporations he will have to deal with -- all this on top of adopting what Sen. Trent Lott calls a "very narrow recusal policy" toward his lobbyist-law clients.

Most disturbing in a bad week was Mr. Clinton's sloppy verbiage in discussing his policy toward Saddam Hussein. Once again, the president-elect was sound enough in asserting he was not "obsessed" by the Iraqi dictator (as Mr. Bush presumably is) and would base future relations on the way he behaves. But in making these comments, he sent more of a message than he intended about his readiness to normalize with Baghdad (he is not), and had to backtrack with fact-skewed complaints that he had been misinterpreted.

Despite a flurry of misstatements, despite misgivings about some Clinton appointees, despite the president-elect's slowness in filling sub-cabinet ranks, Americans are still registering a sky-high 84 percent approval of the way Mr. Clinton has handled his transition. That 58 percent also think he is backing away from campaign promises does not necessarily signify disapproval -- if the promises should never have been made in the first place.

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