It's Hard To Govern from the Center


Washington. -- Earlier this summer, when President Clinton announced his long-awaited compromise between loggers and conservationists over timber-cutting in the Pacific Northwest, the reaction was predictable:

Timber industry representatives denounced the plan as dreadful and one-sided, predicting it would lead to massive layoffs. Meanwhile, environmental groups lambasted the plan for allowing some logging in old growth forests and expressed deep disappointment in a president they had supported in 1992.

The political center is where the vast majority of Americans reside on almost every important public policy issue facing the country. Polls, focus groups, interviews and the election returns themselves show consistently that American voters want politicians to end "gridlock" by embracing pragmatic, non-ideological, bipartisan decisions.

Yet, Mr. Clinton is finding out that representing that majority can be a thankless job -- and that the nation's political institutions are not set up to deal very well with non-ideological decisions.

Think of America's political system as being like a giant courtroom. Big cases (elections) are decided by juries and judges (voters) who are supposed to divine truth after listening to the extreme, polemic-based arguments of attorneys (candidates' ads and speeches.) Both systems reward diligent advocates who can hone their arguments. Its drawback is that neither system is a very precise search for the truth, which often goes unrepresented.

If the political center had a lobby as visible as the Sierra Club or as powerful as the American Forest & Paper Association, surely it would have heaped praise on the president and his interior secretary for addressing the concerns of all sides in trying to break a stalemate that has paralyzed logging in the Northwest without providing any real protection for the forest.

Interest groups not only get themselves on television and in print with criticisms of compromise decisions. They also influence congressional votes, make political contributions and mobilize groups of highly-motivated voters and political volunteers.

"It seems that no good deed in politics goes unpunished," said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. "Politics is conducted by the extremes at the elite level and often passes over the great majority of ordinary Americans who have more pragmatic, non-ideological views."

Mr. Clinton and his advisers are well aware of this fact -- and made good use of their perception last year during the campaign when Mr. Clinton vowed to "end gridlock" if he reached the

White House.

Perhaps more significantly, Mr. Clinton also promised to be "a different kind of Democrat." This pledge was made in response to a remarkable facet of modern American politics: A presidential nominating system that almost ensures that the Democratic presidential nominee will be more liberal than the majority of Americans while the Republicans are choosing someone more conservative.

Most of the attention focused on this phenomenon has delved into how and why this favors Republican candidates, who have won 7 of the last 10 presidential elections. But now, with a Democrat in the White House, the more relevant and pressing question is whether a president from the liberal party will be able to govern from the political center the way Mr. Clinton appears to want to do.

"It's a great question," said Adam Meyerson, editor of the Heritage Foundation's conservative Policy Review. "I'm not sure he's attempting it, but I am sure of this: It's no longer possible to govern as a liberal. Liberalism has reached its fiscal limits. You cannot satisfy all the special interest groups in the liberal firmament and still serve the American people."

But special interest groups come in all stripes, points out Nelson Polsby, a University of California political scientist. And whether they are liberal, conservative or oriented around a business or labor interest, the leaders of these groups rarely believe that it's in their interest to take moderate or reasonable positions.

"Interest groups have their constituencies," said Mr. Polsby. "They are trying to mobilize their own people. Their job is to make sure that people continue to find their issue salient . . . [and] so they tend to make their cases in primary colors."

Mr. Clinton, who usually prefers pastels, has been roundly criticized from both sides on a lengthening list of issues: gays in the military, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), civil rights appointments, the recent decision on wetlands protection.

Sometimes, the critiques come in up-close-and-personal ways. When jogging on the beach in Coronado, Calif., Mr. Clinton was confronted by a fit-looking Marine colonel who wore a red T-shirt that said, "Bill, No Gays in My Marine Corps." Months later, after his "Don't ask, don't tell" compromise, several gay activists from California who worked in his campaign, including longtime friend David Mixner, were arrested in front of the White House protesting the policy.

Mr. Clinton also must watch newscasts and pick up the newspapers and see his centrist decisions picked apart by both sides. His wetlands decision, which gives both the environmentalists and the property owners the key points they had sought for years, was still nickel-and-dimed the day it was announced.

"It favors private development and really weakens wetlands policy," sniffed a representative of the National Wildlife Federation. Meanwhile, the National Association of Homebuilders said that Mr. Clinton had exceeded the authority of Congress and hinted at a legal challenge.

Kathleen McGinty, director of the White House Office on Environmental Policy, defended the policy as "balanced and fair," a phrase that shows up often on White House-prepared talking points -- and which may be accurate -- but which hardly generates a groundswell of support for the president.

Mr. Clinton's advisers insist that he he isn't letting such criticism sway him, however.

"You have to re-educate the American people, but the president feels it's the only way to govern," White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers said in an interview last week. "This isn't a campaign. He's willing to suffer the slings and arrows in the short run."

But while the president often bucks up his young aides by telling them, "You can only stumble when you're trying to move forward," there is some evidence that Mr. Clinton is bothered by the slings and arrows.

While at a party on Martha's Vineyard last week, well-known musician Livingston Taylor asked the president what had been his biggest surprise in Washington. As he has told friends in the past, Mr. Clinton cited the town's fixation with "who's up and who's down."

And in an Aug. 16 speech to the National Governors Association in Tulsa, Mr. Clinton expressed frustration with the hazards of governing from the middle and spoke nostalgically about his days as a governor.

"When we come here and we try to work on something like we worked on the welfare reform bill in 1988, we talked about: 'How does this really work? How are people really going to be affected by this? How can we deal with our differences of opinion and reach real consensus that represents principled compromise?' " he said.

"Back East, where I work," he added, "consensus is often turned into cave-in; people who try to work together and listen to one another instead of beating each other up are accused of being weak, not strong. . . . And the people that really score are the people that lay one good lick on you in the newspaper every day."

Nevertheless, Mr. Polsby and others believe that the president's instincts are right, and that he simply must weather the criticism.

"The center? I think it's the only place," Mr. Polsby says. "The greatest difficulty he had on his economic program in Congress is that he attempted an all-Democrats strategy."

By contrast, Mr. Clinton's easiest victories in Congress have come in the near-unanimous Senate confirmation votes of centrist appointees ranging from Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In what might be the best summation of Mr. Clinton's governing philosophy, the president also said in Tulsa, "I am convinced that this nation really needs a vital center; one committed to fundamental and profound and relentless and continuing change ways that are consistent with the basic values of most Americans. And I don't think you can do it unless we can sit down together and talk and work."

Assuming Mr. Clinton remains on this course, it raises another intriguing question: How will this approach play with the voters in three years?

While Mr. Clinton was applying his centrist, policy-wonk approach to a variety of national issues, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole was up in New Hampshire testing the waters for 1996. If Mr. Clinton's policies and ideas fail, Mr. Dole will probably be pleased he started early. On the other hand, if the president actually solves some of the problems he is tackling, Mr. Dole's approach could backfire.

"Zealots find the murky center rather unsatisfying, and the short-term result of a person trying to govern from the center is unhappiness from everyone who is speaking in the media," says Mr. Mann of the Brookings Institution. "But this is not necessarily true in the long haul. If good things happen, if the economy is objectively better, if the temperature has been lowered on some of these other problems he's tackled, people will be comfortable with him.' "

Ms. Myers seconded that thought.

"The nice thing is that you're not judged in a week or a month, but over four years. And four years from now, the question will be: 'Did it help solve the problem?' The timber conference is a good example. Did it move the region beyond their narrow dispute which was not only nasty, but was impeding them from getting on with their lives?

"If the answer to these questions is yes . . . if the economy improves, if people think progress is being made on other issues, they will vote for him. If they don't think progress is being made and things are worse or whatever . . . well, then bring on Big Bob."

Carl Cannon is White House correspondent for The Baltimore Sun.

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