To save the presidency: The Wofford gambit


BILL Clinton's presidency is on the verge of a downward spiral in which perceived weakness produces further weakness. If he does not pull up on the stick, Mr. Clinton will have little to take to the voters either in the mid-term elections of 1994, or in 1996.

The recent defection of conservative House Democrats over energy taxes and social spending is only the latest example. As the president seems vulnerable and vacillating, each interest group and each party faction figures it has nothing to lose by holding the president's program hostage for its own parochial demands -- which only weakens him further.

The skirmishes to date are mere warm-ups for the main event of this presidential term, namely health reform. If health reform follows the pattern -- compromise and vacillation in drafting the bill, then further compromise with interest groups and congressional Republicans -- the exercise will hardly be worth the trouble.

Here is a radical proposal to change these political dynamics; call it the Wofford gambit. It is risky, but the present course is riskier.

In the Pennsylvania special election of 1991, Harris Wofford, then a relatively unknown liberal, overcame a 40 percent deficit in the polls to defeat a former U.S. attorney general and Pennsylvania governor, Richard Thornburgh. Mr. Wofford did it by stressing one issue -- universal health care. Mr. Wofford's win instantly placed health reform center stage, and transformed the presidential dynamics for 1992.

Instead of rushing to complete a health bill and making fatal compromises in its design to get it through Congress, President Clinton should learn from the Wofford victory. He should craft a package bold enough to do the job properly -- a bill that provides a reliable and universal system of health care for every citizen.

Such a package would be expensive. It would invite the opposition of many special interest groups, but it would win wide backing from the people.

Universal health coverage would also be opposed by the Republicans in Congress. But instead of compromising with the opposition party in order to win a quarter of a loaf, Mr. Clinton should draw the clearest possible line differentiating his program from what the Republicans have to offer on health care.

Rather than compromising, he should dare congressional Republicans to block his reform in the current Congress -- and then take it to the country in the 1994 mid-term elections. The 1994 House and Senate elections would then become a virtual referendum on health reform.

Nearly all Democratic candidates would run for office pledged to support the president's health plan. Most Republicans would oppose it, and the voters for once would have a clear choice.

This strategy would have several benefits. First, it would slow down the crazed pace that now afflicts the Clinton health task force and the attendant pressure to make fatal compromises in order to get a bill, any bill.

Rushing through the most important domestic reform in half a century was never a realistic strategy. To put this in perspective, President Roosevelt appointed his Cabinet Committee on Economic Security in 1933. The committee reported back in 1934. That proposal underwent further refinement, and the Social Security Act finally became law in 1935 -- a whole Congress later.

By taking more time, Mr. Clinton could fashion a program that reflected consensus in his own party and that was substantively up to the job. He could take the time to adequately educate the voters, and nurture popular comprehension and support.

Second, this approach would increase the odds that Mr. Clinton could pick up Democratic seats in the 1994 mid-term elections. Without a dramatic new strategy, those odds are long indeed.

Historically, most presidents lose congressional seats in their first mid-term election. In the history of the Republic, new presidents have made congressional gains in mid-term elections exactly two times -- in 1802 and 1934.

fTC In 1994, a disproportionate number of Democratic senators in marginal seats are up for re-election. Given the legislative stalemate so far and the soft economy, Mr. Clinton would almost surely follow the pattern and suffer mid-term losses, increasing the risk of gridlock as he prepares to face the voters in 1996.

To beat the mid-term odds, Mr. Clinton will need a defining issue. As Mr. Wofford's election and public opinion polls show, health care is fairly begging to be that issue. It is, further, a very salient issue on which the Republicans, denying that a crisis exists, are on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of the electorate.

Finally, this strategy could give Mr. Clinton not just more Democrats in Congress, but more reliable ones, who basically owed their election to support for the president and his health plan.

Symbolic politics and messages-of-the-day are fine on the campaign trail. But to govern, a president must solve real problems. Mr. Clinton needs to slow down and define a strategy that will serve him and the country for the long term.

History has dealt him a crisis of health care, the way it dealt Roosevelt the Great Depression, Truman the Cold War and Johnson the twin challenges of civil rights and Vietnam. How he plays the health issue will define Mr. Clinton's success as president.

Robert Kuttner writes a column on economic issues.

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