Rhetorical flourish won't restore political health PRESIDENT CLINTON'S STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS


WASHINGTON -- If you accept the premise that the 1996 presidential election campaign is already under way -- and it is -- the message in President Clinton's State of the Union speech was that, yes, you can put political magic back in the bottle and use it a second time.

What he failed to acknowledge, however, was that he is now a president bearing the scars of two tumultuous years in office and very much on the defensive, not a fresh-faced challenger running against a disorganized and dispirited opposition with an electorate up in arms about the nation's economic distress.

Mr. Clinton's return to the litany of the "New Covenant" theme that he followed in his 1992 campaign cannot possibly imply the kind of promise that it suggested when he used it the first time around. Complaints about "partisanship" and "pettiness" have a different ring coming from a political leader widely viewed as in desperate political condition, and so do recycled slogans.

Some recognition of his parlous political condition seemed to temper the presidential rhetoric and make much of the long speech conciliatory. Indeed, even his definition of the "New Covenant" sounded like something most of those Republicans who now control Congress could accept with enthusiasm.

"The New Covenant is an approach to governing that is as different from the old bureaucratic way as the computer is from the manual typewriter," he said. "The old way protected the organized interests. The New Covenant looks out for the interests of ordinary people. The old way divided us by interests, constituency or class. The New Covenant unites us behind a common vision of what's best for the country."

But the political reality is that he has passed the point at which rhetorical flourish can restore him to political health. Instead, his best and perhaps only hope for a second term lies in changing the widespread perception of him as a weak leader too quick to take the easy way and too ready to take the political way.

And that is something he cannot contrive. It is something that can be accomplished only through months of performance and changes in his public behavior that convince the electorate that he is a strong figure worth their trust for another term.

Mr. Clinton's speech was by no means a swan dive. Facing the first Republican-controlled Congress in 40 years, he defended his national service program, threatened to veto attempts to reverse the ban on assault weapons in the last crime bill, warned that he would insist on fairness on welfare reform and budget reductions, and stoutly defended such social programs as childhood immunization and prenatal care.

He challenged Republicans to join him on reforms of campaign financing laws and lobbying regulation.

But much of it was vintage Clinton in two respects.

First, as has been the case so often, he demonstrated simply by the extraordinary length of his address -- 81 minutes -- that he still believes he can talk his way through any situation given enough opportunity to make his arguments. That has always been his failing, as everyone in politics remembers from his equally endless nominating speech for Michael Dukakis in 1988.

Second, although there were those few notes of defiance, his message was essentially a cautious one. There were no proposals for dramatic new approaches to government that might evoke a zealous and emotional reaction from his fellow Democrats and particularly from the liberals whose support he needs desperately in the next two years. Even his endorsement of an increase in the minimum wage increase was muted lest it draw too hard a line in the sand before his GOP opponents.

If there was a special audience Mr. Clinton appeared to target, it was those voters still called "Reagan Democrats." These are the working-class Americans who are nominal Democrats but deserted the party twice for Ronald Reagan and once for George Bush before returning to the Democrats two years ago -- and then turned on the president and his party with a vengeance Nov. 8.

These are the voters who responded two years ago when candidate Bill Clinton first talked about his "New Covenant" and emphasized how he would require "responsibility" from welfare beneficiaries as well as corporate executives. These are the voters who responded when he made a point of picking a fight with Jesse Jackson over rap singer Sister Souljah to demonstrate his independence from the most loyal Democratic constituency.

But these are also the voters who have been angered by his attempt to protect homosexuals in the military, dismayed by his support for gun control and disillusioned by his failure to deliver the promise of the first version of the New Covenant.

And they are the voters who, above all, are nourishing doubts about his strength as a national leader. Whether they will be prepared to listen again is obviously an open question. But if Mr. Clinton's speech is to be taken at face value, he still believes that they can be convinced.

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