Clinton, Labor and the Left


Vice President Al Gore probably heard fewer negative comments at the winter meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council than he and the president would have expected only a few months ago. Big Labor fought hard against the president on the North American Free Trade Agreement in Congress. When the president won, many union leaders threatened retaliation.

But most union leaders now seem inclined to forgive but not forget the NAFTA "betrayal" by Election Day 1996 -- if the administration sticks to its support of a strong health insurance bill. That has been labor's first priority for a long time, and Bill Clinton is the first president to show signs of truly fighting for it.

President Clinton will need union support in 1996, especially if the race is two-way rather than three-way, as in 1992. If he gets it, he could be in very good shape. Polls show a slight gain since 1992 in the number of Americans who say they consider themselves Democrats. The party had a 6- percentage-point edge in polls then, and it has an 8-point advantage now. In a two-way race in 1996, President Clinton would need to pick up only about 40 percent of the Ross Perot vote (assuming the president holds what he won) to defeat any Republican. He may do much better than that. A Republican pollster said recently President Clinton is gaining a majority of the Perot vote. One reason for this is that there is as yet no single Republican to rally around, nor even any Republicans attracting national attention. With White House and Congress controlled by Democrats, Republican wannabes have a problem being heard at all.

Another reason is that President Clinton is succeeding in presenting himself as "a new kind of Democrat" -- a moderate. That success makes some union officials, black political leaders and old-line liberals like Sen. Edward Kennedy a little uncomfortable. But despite some grumbling among these groups and individuals over NAFTA, Lani Guinier, "get-tough" welfare reform and a few other race-related issues, there is no indication anyone, with the possible exception of Jesse Jackson, is thinking at the moment about challenging the president from the left in 1996.

This month, the president has even looked more certain and more competent to the public on his least favorite issue -- foreign policy. That can change fast, as previous presidents have learned to their sorrow. And President Clinton also has the Whitewatergate story to think about. The independent counsel promises to get to the bottom of that before the next presidential election. But as of now, citizens tell poll-takers by a whopping 6-1 margin that what they know about Whitewater does not negatively affect their assessment of the president.

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