If Richard Nixon is remembered as the president who proclaimed that he was "not a crook," Bill Clinton is entitled to a bit of immortality as the president who had to declare he is "relevant."
"The Constitution," he said, "gives me relevance" -- an observation both legally and historically confirmed by the development of the powerful modern presidency. Contrary to the intentions of the Founding Fathers, Twentieth Century presidents, rather than the Congress, have become the nation's legislators-in-chief. At least, until now.
But when Mr. Clinton asserts, as well, that he is "relevant" as an "active president," he is engaging in hyperbole. Since Speaker Newt Gingrich and his fellow Republicans swept to power in last November's elections, the fulcrum of power has moved from the White House to Capitol Hill. We have returned to the Eighteenth Century thesis that "Congress proposes and the president disposes."
Whether this is a welcome or unwelcome development has little do do with its undoubted reality. Since November Mr. Clinton has been so passive, so reactive that many of his fellow Democrats in Congress have been driven to despair and, in a few instances, to defection. The question of the moment is whether he can reverse a mood and a momentum that he did so much to inspire.
There can be no doubt that Mr. Clinton is a man of ideas. When Democrats controlled Congress, he compiled a solid record of accomplishment until his wife's grandiose health care reforms fell of their own weight. But he now confronts in Mr. Gingrich a politician whose ideological drive and passion far outstrip his own. Mr. Clinton may try to propose a welfare plan or a tax cut, but in the end he will have to dispose what originates from the Gingrich high command (with Senate modifications added).
Does this mean Mr. Clinton is as irrelevant as he seems? Indeed it does if he remains as reluctant about using his veto power as has been the case so far. Mr. Clinton came to office inveighing against President George Bush's enthusiastic use of the veto. It was projected as something distasteful -- even evil -- a passport to gridlock.
Of course, it is anything but. Presidential veto power is as vital and legitimate a part of the Constitution as any of its other deft instruments of check and balance. The Founding Fathers had two great fears: an authoritarian chief executive and a runaway Congress. To prevent the legislative branch from overreach, they agreed to give the president the power to veto its bills and resolutions. But they did not make this power absolute. Vetoes could be overridden by a two-thirds vote in both houses.
The president says he does not wish to govern by issuing a pile of vetoes. He seeks cooperation with the GOP especially on welfare and tax cuts. But in our view he cannot hope to recapture his lost relevancy until he uses this important Constitution power -- and uses it effectively, without apology.