Give 'em hell, Bill?


Washington -- CAN BILL Clinton do a Harry Truman? President Truman turned the 1948 election into a referendum against the Republican "Do-nothing Congress." To the surprise of nearly everyone, he was re-elected, along with a Democratic Congress.

There are differences of course. First, 1994 is not a presidential election year. And the present Congress is controlled by Democrats, at least nominally. But a Truman strategy is still worth a try.

In a few fateful weeks, Congress is likely to pass a watered-down health bill. Bill Clinton will then face a decision that could redeem or wreck his presidency: To sign or not to sign?

Mr. Clinton is often faulted for indecisiveness. But in sending health legislation to Congress, he was unequivocal about one thing. He would veto any bill that fell short of universal coverage.

He could wriggle out of that threat by redefining "universal," but he should stick to the promise for several interrelated reasons. The first set of reasons has to do with the logic of health reform. The second has to do with politics.

If Mr. Clinton signs a tepid health reform bill, it becomes his baby. But if the bill has a long phase-in period, or fails to deal with the escalating costs and the red tape that frustrate so many RTC people, or if it guarantees only mediocre coverage, the voters will feel had once again: A lot of fanfare and little real change.

By holding out for a good bill and vetoing a bad one, Mr. Clinton could change the dynamics of both health reform and the 1994 mid-term election.

He is approaching a difficult mid-term election with a wafer-thin legislative majority. If the Democrats lose more than a handful of seats, Mr. Clinton's next two legislative years will be gridlock lubricated with molasses.

In the history of the Republic, only two new presidents have gained seats in both houses in their first mid-term congressional election -- Franklin Roosevelt in 1934 and Thomas Jefferson in 1802.

Mr. Clinton may aspire to be FDR and his middle name may be Jefferson, but duplicating their feat is improbable. If the present political climate persists, analysts project net Democratic losses of 15 to 25 seats in the House and three to five in the Senate.

A watered down bipartisan health bill would do nothing to transform that equation. But if Mr. Clinton vetoes a bad bill and goes to the country, he could put himself back on the side of a frustrated electorate instead of symbolizing everything that is wrong with Washington.

With a populist strategy, Clinton could rekindle a groundswell of support for change -- and identify himself with it. He might even bring more congressional allies back with him.

Vetoing a bad bill has risks. But signing a bad one virtually guarantees that he will reap the blame for an unreformed health system, as well as a deadlocked Congress in 1995.

Robert Kuttner is a syndicated columnist.

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