In seeking high ground, Clinton aims for middle


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton is a man who obviously yearns to please everyone at the same time if possible. That is a tough job, but he never seems to tire of the attempt, whether it is in offering the hand of comity to House Speaker Newt Gingrich in their celebrated friendly "debate" in New Hampshire or in opening the door to compromise with the GOP on a balanced budget plan.

He calls in the most civil terms for greater civility in political discourse, and his latest effort to please everybody is his defense of a role for religion in public education that doesn't infringe on First Amendment protections. Spokesmen for such disparate groups as the Christian Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union selectively found in his remarks grounds to applaud them as supportive of their own views on the subject.

Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, gushed that "the president has now agreed with our long-standing position: that public schools should not be religious-free zones." A spokesman for the ACLU professed to be "heartened by the president's ringing defense of the First Amendment" and

"guardedly optimistic" regarding the guidelines to be issued by the Department of Education on acceptable practices that do not breach the traditional church-state separation.

Even the American Jewish Congress, whose members have been particularly concerned about Christian religious activities of various sorts in public schools that can give offense or discomfort to adherents of Judaism, applauded Clinton's remarks as "a welcome and ringing reaffirmation of the continued vitality of the First Amendment."

The president's successful navigation through these often contentious waters was achieved without endorsement of the constitutional amendment for prayer in public schools that is the centerpiece of the religious right's legislative agenda. That keeps fellow Democrats on the left happy, even though many doubtless would have preferred he not get involved at all in the matter.

Clinton's remarks on religion in the schools are part of his concerted effort to project himself as the champion of sweet reasonableness, in contrast with Republican positions of extremism, harshness and excess.

In last fall's midterm congressional election campaign, the Democrats sought to stem the Republican tide by casting Gingrich's "Contract with America" as an extreme threat to government services, such as Social Security and Medicare, that are so cherished by poor, elderly and middle-class Americans. The strategy failed abysmally, and Clinton clearly judged thereafter that scare tactics alone would not work.

One of the political pitfalls in projecting an image of reasonableness and civility is that doing so will be seen as political weakness, or as me-too-ism -- "Republican Lite" is the current disparaging phrase. That posture drives old Democratic liberals up the wall; they long for going to the mat with Gingrich and Co. as the unvarnished defenders of "the working man" their party used to be.

But with liberalism so successfully demonized by every Republican president since Richard Nixon, ever-decreasing numbers of Democrats are willing to go into political battle against the Republicans with their liberal flag unfurled. Clinton's renewed self-declaration as a "new Democrat" is a measure of his assessment that political survival these days requires a posture in the center of the spectrum.

Clinton was burned last year by the way Republicans were able to paint his very ambitious plan for health care reform as a classic example of old liberal spending and big government bureaucracy. Now he is conspicuously seeking to be perceived as a man of the constructive but nonthreatening middle ground, determined in pursuing change in which the baby isn't thrown out with the bath water, as he implies the Republicans are bent on doing.

It is a gamble that so far has not produced Democratic unity in Congress or struck fear in the Republicans. But Clinton's chances of re-election may well ride on his ability to use sweet reasonableness to overcome the coolness of voters toward him, successfully cast the Republicans as extremists and hold enough of the middle ground to win.

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