That handshake in N.H.: Were their fingers crossed?


WASHINGTON -- In his weekend radio talk, President Clinton pointedly reminded listeners of that memorable scene in Claremont, N.H., last month when he and House Speaker Newt Gingrich shook hands on a "deal" to create a bipartisan commission on lobbying and campaign finance reform to curb the power of special interests, as suggested by a questioner.

Clinton declared then that "in a heartbeat, I accept," leading to the handshake, as the crowd of predominantly senior citizens applauded.

It was, for all those willing for a moment to suspend disbelief, an uplifting cameo.

Five days later, the president, in a letter to Gingrich simultaneously made public, proposed creation of a bipartisan commission with himself, Gingrich and other congressional leaders naming members.

Gingrich immediately criticized Clinton's move as grandstanding.

In the president's latest radio talk, he announced he had asked two prominent private citizens, Common Cause founder John Gardner, nominally a Republican but a Lyndon Johnson Cabinet member, and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, a former White House aide to LBJ, to confer with Gingrich on the matter.

At the same time, he expressed disappointment with Gingrich's attitude, remarking that:

"If we are going to restore a spirit of civility to American politics, a handshake has to mean in 1995 what it meant when I was growing up. We have to be as good as our word."

This comment itself did nothing to evoke civility from Gingrich.

His press aide, Tony Blankley, who often speaks as if he is Gingrich, called Clinton "the Pinocchio president" who "can't resist taking the political angle rather than the high road," and dubbed his comments "cheeky."

Such remarks aren't likely to prevent Clinton from winning Brownie points for his efforts.

The New Hampshire citizen who proposed the commission idea at the Clinton-Gingrich "debate" -- conveniently telephoned by the president after his radio talk -- later observed that "Clinton has kept up his part of the bargain . . .

"So I would challenge Newt Gingrich to put as much effort and time into it as the president has."

There was, however, something distinctly "cheeky" about Clinton's proposal of a bipartisan commission and his defense of the approach in which "Congress would have to vote within a strict deadline, up or down, on the package as a whole," with "no loopholes, no amendments."

Clinton less than two weeks ago angrily denounced the product of a similar independent commission operating under the same take-it-or-leave-it procedure, when the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission called for the state of California to take particularly heavy hits.

The president put thinly veiled pressures on the commission to consider relief for the state that Clinton needs for re-election in 1996.

But he grudgingly accepted its recommendations -- while unspecifically charging the commission with a "calculated, deliberate attempt" to play politics.

Such commissions are established with the clear intention of insulating the president and Congress from political fallout.

But Clinton, instead of simply accepting the base-closing commission's decisions, undermined the whole no-fault concept by first appearing to be trying to have them modified and then attacking the commission itself.

Yet turning over lobbying and campaign finance reform to just such a commission and the up-or-down voting procedure in Congress would probably offer the most hope for reform in this area of highly charged politics.

Just as members of Congress don't want bases in their districts and states to be closed, they generally are not favorably disposed to reforms that will deprive them of perks from lobbyists and, more importantly, campaign contributions from special-interest political action committees that flow to incumbents.

Legislation now before the Senate to rein in lobbyists and curb congressional perks from them appears headed for the usual partisan stalemate of recent years, or severe watering down.

Although Clinton did not flatly threaten a veto, he implied it in stipulating in his weekend radio talk that "Congress should not send me a bill that's more loophole than law."

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