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This time, Clinton takes action on an easier issue


WASHINGTON -- For the second time in recent weeks, President Clinton has dusted off his power to act by executive order and used it. The first was his maneuver to bypass an unwilling Congress and provide a financial lifeline to Mexico in the wake of the collapse of the peso. The second was a move to toss a lifeline to hard-pressed head-of-household mothers by turning federal bloodhounds on fathers who dodge child support payments.

The second is likely to be as uncontroversial as the first was controversial. In this Republican era of demanding individual responsibility -- echoed by the "New Democrat" president -- who can be against nailing "deadbeat dads"?

The order applies only to the estimated 105,000 federal workers who either won't own up to being father of the child or children in question, or who simply have run out on their families. In acting, Clinton has warned that "any parent who is avoiding his or her child support should listen carefully. We will find you. We will catch you. We will make you pay."

Although the president took care to be gender correct, the records show that the deadbeats overwhelmingly are men. It's Clinton's idea that federal employment records, especially in the military, will make it easier to identify and locate them.

Losing control of Congress to the opposition party is likely to fasten the presidential mind on options such as executive orders for getting things done without having to run the congressional gantlet. But Clinton has always been familiar with the device, as those who remember the early gays-in-the-military flap will well recall.

Then, he announced he was going to rescind unilaterally the ban on discrimination by sexual preference, only to run into a buzz saw of opposition on Capitol Hill, with threats of legislation that would override his action. Amid much backing and filling that proved to be of lasting political damage to him, Clinton agreed to a Pentagon commission that worked out the "don't ask, don't tell" compromise that didn't seem to satisfy anybody directly involved.

Clinton defended his decision to act swiftly and on his own in this matter on grounds that he had pledged to do so as a candidate. The decision later was judged to be a colossal political blunder that set precisely the wrong tone for his administration and for his subsequently weak image as a man who took positions but didn't stick to them.

Hindsight is, to be sure, an easy game to play. But you have to wonder whether the Clinton presidency would have gotten into the early trouble that befell it had the man in the Oval Office made something like deadbeat dads his first target, rather than the military that by regulation practiced discrimination against gays.

In neither case, it should be noted, was the issue raised as a priority by Clinton in the campaign, risking a general voter uproar if not addressed immediately. But by going after deadbeat dads early, the new president would have been picking a target bereft of defenders and painting himself as a good guy.

Instead, he injected himself smack into the center of a sociological debate that invited the opposition and hostility not only of many in the military who already were down on him as a result of his Vietnam-era draft record, but also of religious right and other conservatives waging war on the front of orthodox family values.

All that, to be sure, is administration history now. In itself, Clinton's decision to declare war on those who dodge their child-support obligations is a most commendable one. It's doubtful, though, that it will be any major element in the political rehabilitation he needs as he moves toward a re-election bid next year.

It's often said that in politics, timing is everything. Clinton seemed well aware of that axiom in promising a dynamic first 100 days in his administration. Instead, he let diversionary and politically damaging matters intervene, to the detriment of his record and his personal image. It is a mistake that House Speaker Newt Gingrich has thus far largely avoided in his own 1994 campaign promise to change congressional business as usual in the first 100 days of GOP control.

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