PIN THE BLAME ON THE PRESIDENT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Washington -- As 1994 winds to a close, President Clinton and the Democratic Party are at a crossroads, with each trying to determine whether it would be better off trying to govern without the other.

Mr. Clinton may be the titular head of the party. But he has instilled neither the sense of fear inspired by Lyndon B. Johnson nor the love inspired by John F. Kennedy, and during the autumn midterm elections, Democratic candidates, particularly in the South and the West, openly refused to campaign with him.

The situation has hardly improved since Nov. 8. Many Capitol Hill Democrats privately blame Mr. Clinton for the defeat. And those who survived the Republican tide, including the new Senate Democratic leader, Thomas A. Daschle, have vowed to voters back home that they will make decisions independent of the White House.

Last week, the House minority leader, Richard A. Gephardt, thought nothing of jumping in two days before a major presidential announcement on a middle-class tax cut -- to give his version of a middle-class tax cut.

The day before, former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts -- who ran against Mr. Clinton two years ago in the Democratic primaries -- called for the formation of a new political party to be headed by Gen. Colin L. Powell.

Meanwhile, top Democratic campaign consultants are shopping for potential Democratic challengers to the president. The possibilities that come up most frequently are Sens. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Tom Harkin of Iowa, outgoing Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.

"Part of the problem is that politicians like to blame someone else for their own problems -- and many of these Democrats are blaming Clinton," said Jeff Raimundo, a lobbyist from Sacramento, Calif. "They look to the president to be the one who draws support to the party. Their perception is that he hurts them."

Certainly, infighting is nothing new for the party. Three of the four Democratic presidents since the end of World War II were challenged by members of their own party in the presidential campaigns. Three long generations ago, Will Rogers could get a laugh with the line: "I don't belong to any organized political party -- I'm a Democrat."

Nevertheless, history suggests that the lack of support for Mr. Clinton within his own party is not a good omen for his re-election chances.

The more immediate impact will come in how Mr. Clinton chooses to govern with a Republican majority in Congress. Liberals see Mr. Clinton -- armed with veto power -- as a last line of defense against a conservative Congress. But the president is making noises that suggest that he, too, is thinking of going his own way.

He has directed White House budget makers to produce a document that will pre-empt some of the Republicans' budget-cutting thunder. He is considering gutting or eliminating several government agencies that are longtime Democratic favorites.

White House strategists are also openly negotiating on key issues with Bob Dole, the Senate Republican leader. The name Thomas A. Daschle is rarely uttered publicly by White House officials.

Meanwhile, without consulting party leaders, Mr. Clinton is already laying plans for his 1996 campaign, according to Leon E. Panetta, the White House chief of staff. One White House official said he believes those plans will include a contingency plan for a Democratic primary challenge.

Ten days ago, in a fiery speech to the Democratic Leadership Council, an influential group of party centrists, Mr. Clinton suggested that it doesn't need to be this way.

Ripping up an address written by his own speechwriters, the president heatedly defended his policies of the past two years -- policies that he said are intended to help the very working- and middle-class Americans whom the DLC wants to woo back to the Democratic fold.

"Join me in the arena," Mr. Clinton told the DLC, in a reference calculated to invoke the memory of fighting Teddy Roosevelt. "Not in the peanut gallery."

But to prominent Democrats, going to battle on Mr. Clinton's side can be risky. It's not always that easy to find his foxhole.

"He's never staked out a claim with one wing of the party," says Rick Ridder, a Denver-based Democratic political consultant. "For a long time, he was with the DLC. Then, after he was elected, he leaned to the more liberal side of the party. Where's home for him? He has no home."

His appearance at the DLC, a group he once headed, underscored that point. As the hall rang with applause, and Hillary Rodham Clinton smiled and hugged her husband, Rep. Dave McCurdy, the DLC's current leader, turned to Mr. Clinton and said, "That's the Bill Clinton we've been waiting for!"

Still, the notion that Mr. Clinton would still have to being wooing the DLC two years into his presidency only served to underscore his precarious hold on the affections of even like-minded party stalwarts.

Many of those Democrats who lost Nov. 8 did so to Republican opponents whose main campaign argument to voters was that they would oppose Bill Clinton if sent to Washington.

Mr. McCurdy knows all about it. He campaigned for Mr. Clinton in New Hampshire, introduced him at the 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York and stumped for him back home in Oklahoma. But after the election, Oklahomans were dismayed when the president proposed a BTU tax that would have hit energy states hard.

This fall, as he ran for an open Senate seat, Mr. McCurdy backpedaled from Mr. Clinton as fast as he could, but it wasn't fast enough. He lost to a Republican opponent, James M. Inhofe, who ran television ads in which Mr. McCurdy's face was electronically altered until it became the face of Mr. Clinton.

"Clinton killed us," said one McCurdy campaign worker.

Mr. McCurdy's own bitterness was evident in remarks he made to the Democratic Leadership Council on the morning of Mr. Clinton's own speech to the DLC.

"Bill Clinton won as a moderate Democrat, a New Democrat, a DLC Democrat," he said. "But he has governed as something else. Not as a liberal, as the Republicans say, but as a transitional figure. For while Bill Clinton has the mind of a New Democrat, he retains the heart of an Old Democrat. The result is an administration that has pursued elements of a moderate and liberal agenda at the same time -- to the great confusion of the American people."

Mr. Clinton's rebuttal to the DLC was well-received, and it caused an initial surge of optimism at the White House. But few party professionals thought it would end up being enough. "All his problems are traceable to a single failing -- he hasn't communicated to anyone why he wants to be president," said Greg Schneiders, a Democratic consultant. "It's why the polls show the American people worry about him. It's why the DLC worries about him, why liberals worry about him and why conservatives worry about him.

"It's all right there in that famous snapshot of him shaking hands in the Rose Garden with John F. Kennedy," Mr. Schneiders added. "He's only 16, but from then on, he wanted to be president. But that became the end in itself. He's like a dog that catches a car: 'Now, what do I do with it?' "

Mr. Clinton passionately disputes that perception. In his speech to the nation Thursday night, he proposed to shrink government and cut taxes on the middle class, and he declared: "I ran for president to restore the American dream and to prepare the American people to compete and win in the new American economy."

But if Americans don't have a strong sense of what Mr. Clinton stands for, it is partly because his instincts are often to try to be all things to all people.

Last week, for example, the 53rd anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, began with the flags over the capital flying at half-staff on orders from Mr. Clinton, who ordered the lowering of flags, for the first time in a generation, in honor of the American sailors killed on Dec. 7, 1941.

By the end of the day, however, Mr. Clinton had, at the behest of Japan, pressured Postmaster General Marvin Runyon to drop a proposed stamp that commemorates the end of World War II with a picture of a mushroom-shaped cloud.

"The perception Democrats have about Clinton is that people think he's wishy-washy," says Mr. Raimundo.

But Mathilde Krim, a wealthy liberal and well-known party contributor, warns her fellow Democrats that turning on a Democrat in the White House could soon result in its occupation by a Republican.

Dr. Krim, who heads a foundation for AIDS research, made that comment while being asked about the recent firing of Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders -- an action she did not approve of.

But asked whether she still supports Mr. Clinton, she replied, "As Lyndon Johnson used to say, 'He's the only president we've got.' "

Carl M. Cannon is a reporter in the Washington Bureau of The Baltimore Sun.

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