WASHINGTON -- Now that President Clinton in his State of the Union address has laid down an agenda that seems aimed more at pleasing the Republicans controlling Congress than the traditional liberal constituencies in his own Democratic Party, this question arises:
Can he be re-elected in 1996 if he is widely perceived as not being that much different from the Republicans who are now riding so high on a wave of smaller government, lower taxes and ending business as usual in Washington?
Democratic defenders will argue that his call for an increase in the minimum wage, muted as it was in the speech; his promised veto of any repeal of last year's ban on assault rifles; and his implied threat to veto any Republican effort to kill his prized national service program all constitute drawing a line in the sand against the opposition party.
But all these are minimal stands he must take to preserve any sense at all of steel in the presidential spine. The basic political question is whether, in pursuing such a generally conciliatory agenda toward the Republicans, he will offer the nation's voters a substantially different alternative to any Republican challenger in 1996 to draw their support.
Much will depend, to be sure, on how the offer of bipartisanship actually plays out as Clinton deals with a Republican leadership that is so clearly bent on beating him in 1996 that House Speaker Newt Gingrich continues to speak disparagingly about him and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole lays plans to actually run against the incumbent.
But assuming that the Democratic president and the Republican Congress succeed in achieving such things as the line-item veto, a first-step-only toward health care reform, a very modest reform of welfare and a crackdown on illegal immigration, it is very likely voters will see all of them as Republican initiatives and credit the GOP, not Clinton.
For all of the president's plea for a "leaner, not meaner" government and his pointed reference in his speech that the "underclass" must be strengthened, his agenda as articulated the other night cannot help but blur the distinction between where he stands and the positions espoused by the congressional Republicans with whom he seeks to work.
This is the fear recently expressed by the Democratic Party's leading liberal, Sen. Ted Kennedy, when he warned that "if Democrats run for cover, if we become pale carbon copies of the opposition and try to act like Republicans, we will lose -- and deserve to lose. . . . Democrats must be more than warmed-over Republicans," Kennedy argued. "The last thing this country needs is two Republican parties."
Kennedy in his speech noted that he won re-election by running unabashedly as a liberal, but he did not mention the obvious fact that the Kennedy name and history in Massachusetts were a factor other Democrats, even liberals, running elsewhere could not count on.
And the fact is that Clinton is not a liberal in the Kennedy mode. His "New Democrat" self-characterization, as spelled out the other night, leaves him open to the charge of me-too-ing the Republicans.
Presidential elections, however, often come down to personalities as much or more than issue positions, and therein may lie Clinton's best hope for re-election. Voters on Election Day have to choose between two candidates, or possibly among more. So the 1996 outcome may depend on whom the Republicans nominate, and the GOP field looks none too inspiring right now.
Three of the most prominent aspirants -- Dole, former Vice President Dan Quayle and Sen. Phil Gramm -- all have raps against them; Dole as too old and nasty, Quayle as an intellectual lightweight and Gramm as excessively didactic and boring.
Jack Kemp, if he runs, will be disparaged as old hat and too loquacious. The others -- Lamar Alexander, Govs. Bill Weld, Pete Wilson, Tommy Thompson -- are as yet insufficiently defined in the public mind as presidential timber. Former Bush Secretary of State James Baker is considered a heavyweight, but isn't really expected to run.
An old political axiom holds that you can't beat somebody with nobody. The prospective Republican lineup for 1996 is not exactly a bunch of nobodies, but it doesn't sparkle either.
So Clinton's best hope in the end may come down to the political version of the old Henny Youngman gag: "How's your wife?" "Compared to what?"