WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Defeat may be character-building, but President Clinton is likely to discover that it is also politically debilitating. He is now under heightened pressure to demonstrate once again that he can play big-league politics.
No one on either side of the argument ever imagined that the $16.3 billion economic stimulus plan -- or jobs bill, as the White House preferred to call it -- would have any significant long-term impact on the sluggish economy. The administration hope had been that it would be a palliative that would provide some temporary jobs while waiting for the private sector to pick up some steam.
But the defeat of even such a modest measure has raised questions about the political skills and judgment of the new president and his advisers. Within the bipartisan political community there is a widespread consensus that the White House made several mistakes.
The first, of course, lay in the decision by the White House to push his entire economic package through Congress on the strength of Democratic votes alone and after consultation only with Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole signaled clearly and repeatedly early in the process that Republicans would like to be consulted and involved but was rebuffed, an obvious blunder since there were never enough Democratic votes to break a filibuster.
The second mistake was another product of hubris in the White House -- this time in rejecting the proposal from Democratic Sens. David Boren of Oklahoma and John Breaux of Louisiana for a compromise that would make the jobs bill more palatable by delaying the implementation of part of it. Rather than recognize a way out of a potential impasse, the White House discussed ways they might put pressure on Boren, an unrewarding enterprise at any time.
Finally, confronted with the reality of the solid Republican support for the filibuster, Clinton and his advisers decided they could crack it by putting enough pressure from back home on potential defectors. The theory was that there were enough Republicans with some history of independence -- such senators as Jim Jeffords of Vermont, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Mark Hatfield of Oregon and John Chafee of Rhode Island -- that they could be squeezed for the four votes needed to shut down the filibuster.
It was toward that end that Clinton suddenly rushed out to the Pittsburgh airport to make a speech about how many jobs would be lost in Pennsylvania if the jobs bill were blocked. The White House apparently imagined that the president's popularity was high enough and his case compelling enough that the grass roots would rise up and demand that Specter go along.
This strategy was based on two mistaken assessments. The first was that the jobs bill was important enough for voters so they would demand that it be passed. Although polls showed and continued to show majority support for the measure, it was never the kind of bill that would evoke wild public enthusiasm.
The second and more serious mistake was the misunderstanding of the Republican opposition. By this time Republican senators saw their solidarity as both a valuable asset they could employ in the future and a test of their loyalty to Dole. Even someone as independent as Jeffords or Specter wasn't likely to desert his leader over something as essentially inconsequential as the jobs bill.
The result of all this is that Clinton now must demonstrate that he has learned from the experience and won't allow it to become a pattern. And he must try to find some way to placate supporters who went over the side because of his failure on the jobs bill.
House Democrats clearly need attention because, with only 22 defectors, they voted for the jobs bill and thus exposed themselves to campaign charges they are old-fashioned tax-and-spend Democrats -- all to no result. It would not be surprising if they are less willing to go along next time.
Clinton also must find a way to make it up to the mayors of big cities who had been counting on the bill not only for summer jobs but for jobs building bridges and highways.
The defeat the president suffered need not be permanently damaging to his stewardship. Right now, however, the imperative is proving he can play the game at the big-league level.