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Clinton Moves Toward the Center


Liberal Democrats in Congress don't like it, but "yellow dog" DTC Democrats of the conservative and moderate ilk do. It's creating a stir in party circles. Call it is the re-redefinition of Bill Clinton.

What's happening should not come as a surprise. There's a presidential election next year and Mr. Clinton's bleak political outlook has persuaded him that he's got to change his approach. Instead of following the liberal lead of congressional Democrats intent on defending all social legislation of the last 40 years -- and savaging the Republican majority for pushing through sweeping changes -- Mr. Clinton had suddenly jumped ship. He's back following a centrist path, much the way he did successfully in positioning himself as a "New Democrat" in the 1992 campaign.

So far, the president has mimicked Republicans in calling for welfare reform, endorsed a long-term budget-balancing plan to compete with harsher Republican cuts and is expected to announce a reduction in the scope and number of Washington's affirmative action programs.

None of this has gone over well with the Richard Gephardt-David Bonior-David Obey wing of Hill Democrats. To them, the president's rightward jump toward the center is blasphemy, an abandonment of the party's historic belief in big government social spending. Yet it was precisely this approach that voters soundly rejected in last year's elections that handed control of Congress to conservative Republicans.

Mr. Clinton, with advice from a former Republican consultant, Dick Morris, is attempting to steer clear of traditional liberal policy positions and set himself up as the man in the middle -- to the right of big-spending Democrats, to the left of Republicans' mindless and painful dismantling of federal domestic programs. As Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute -- a centrist Democratic think tank -- put it, the president is trying to build "a case with the public at large for his re-election."

Without the middle-road American voter, this theory goes, Mr. Clinton cannot win reelection. And siding with liberal Democrats in Congress won't win him those pivotal swing votes.

Mr. Clinton has proved a master at constantly re-defining himself. He is the ultimate political survivor. Now he is doing it again. Republicans may be chortling and liberal Democrats may be furious, but Candidate Clinton has been underestimated and derided before. That's how he got to be president in the first place.

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