Signs of political damage render Clinton vulnerable


WASHINGTON -- The notion that President Clinton is in danger of meltdown only four months into his four-year term is, on the face of it, a little extravagant. Clinton has always been a tenacious and resourceful politician capable of learning from his mistakes.

And it should not be forgotten that those who are saying the sky is falling are the same people who were saying two years ago that George Bush was politically invulnerable.

It is equally true, nonetheless, that the new president has reached a critical point in defining his administration. The signs of serious political damage, if not meltdown, are abundant.

Item: Two new opinion polls, taken for CNN and ABC News, agree in showing for the first time that disapproval of Clinton's performance in office exceeds approval. The CNN figures are 44 percent positive, 46 negative; ABC has it 46-48.

Item: The single most threatening finding in recent polls is that 70 percent of the voters now say the country is "off on the wrong track" rather than "headed in the right direction." This is a key political indicator, and the general rule is that any "wrong track" number over 50 is a warning to incumbents. When the figure reaches 70, as it did for then President Bush late in 1991 and has now for Clinton, there is valid reason for a little panic.

The "wrong track" number also is indirectly threatening to the president: it suggests a lack of consumer confidence that, in turn, could make it far more difficult to achieve the economic recovery that is absolutely essential to his political survival.

Item: Clinton has made the kind of apparently small mistakes -- his $200 haircut, the flap over the White House travel office -- that have made him the target of ridicule. Although no one would argue that late-night talk show comedians are a scientific measure of anything, politicians learned long ago that the attitudes they reflect should not be ignored.

Item: The single best seat-of-the-pants measure of a political leader's vulnerability is the attitude of other politicians, and both the Republicans and Democrats have been increasingly emboldened to defy the president in the last few weeks. At the moment, the White House clearly lacks the Democratic votes to be sure of passing Clinton's budget in the House later this week. In the Senate, the threat may be even more serious.

Item: Clinton is being barraged with advice on the steps he needs to take to regain control of the national agenda, which is what always happens when the White House is perceived to be "in disarray." He is being told, most obviously, that he needs to go to the voters directly with a nationally televised speech redefining his economic plan. He is being told repeatedly that he needs more gray-beards in the White House. He is being told he should limit his focus to two or three issues if he is to enjoy any lasting success. And, above all, he is being told he cannot permit any more gaffes that divert attention from his purpose.

Nor is there any serious disagreement within the political community about the cause of Clinton's travail today. The consensus in the political community, one shared by his supporters and critics alike, is that he has projected an image of himself as both entirely too liberal and terminally incompetent, a potentially deadly combination.

It is already too late for Clinton to row back on some of the things that have contributed to those perceptions. However it turns out, it will never be forgotten that he went all out to revoke the prohibition against homosexuals in the military. Even if he buys some home clippers and gets Hillary to cut his hair, Christophe is now part of the legend.

But it is also true that voters can factor such bits of history into their view of a politician and still accept him. A year ago, everyone was snickering about Clinton's insistence he didn't inhale that marijuana and doubting his insistence he wasn't fudging on the draft.

The imperative for Clinton is to give the voters new and -- hopefully from his point of view -- positive information on which to base their judgment. That is why the vote on the budget in the House is so significant. If the president carries the day, he will be a "winner" with a $200 haircut; if he loses, it will be seen as further evidence the sky is falling.

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