Bob Kerrey turns from likely challenger to (sort of) endorsing Clinton


WASHINGTON -- DEMOCRATS IN Congress -- irate at President Clinton for trying to shift the blame on them for his shortcomings -- are looking forward to his re-election campaign with all the relish of a small boy facing a measles shot. They'd rather not have it, but they know it's unavoidable.

No challenger here

About the only Democrat who might have had thoughts earlier about challenging Bill Clinton for the party's nomination, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, has said flatly he's not going to run. Senator Kerrey insists that in spite of his recent blast against Mr. Clinton in the wake of the president's attempts at blame-shifting, his disagreements with the leader of his party are only "at the margin."

Bill Clinton, Mr. Kerrey says, has kept the economy "in great shape" and is "doing much better" since their open quarrel in 1993, when Mr. Kerrey reluctantly provided the deciding vote on Mr. Clinton's budget reduction package and then publicly lectured him to start leading like a president.

"I lectured him too much," Senator Kerrey now says of that episode, but then adds that Mr. Clinton still hasn't responded to his plea. He wishes, he says, the president would step up and say straight out where he wants to take the country, instead of looking back and trying to shift blame for what's gone wrong.

Mr. Kerrey cites several members of Congress who lost their seats after going along with Mr. Clinton on his 1993 deficit reduction bill, and he derides Mr. Clinton's attitude as "Tom Foley made me do it," referring to the deposed Democratic speaker.

Of the president, Mr. Kerrey says: "There's a tendency at times to play the victim card a bit too much . . . It doesn't trouble me; I get angry with it."

Yet he says he will support the president for re-election. "I don't at the moment have an electoral alternative that I think is better," he says. "I don't expect to have one. I'm not out searching for somebody to run against the president in a Democratic primary."

That statement hardly rates as a hearty endorsement. In fact, Mr. Kerrey says, a challenge to President Clinton in the primaries next year "might have been" good for the party, "but it's not going to happen." Anyway, Mr. Kerrey says, "the president has done such a substantial amount of reappraisal himself" that he probably doesn't need a Democratic challenger.

Critical moments

"It's gotten him criticized," Mr. Kerrey notes, "but he's been reconsidering and thinking about what happened in November of '94. . . . It's almost as if he had an opponent. There's been a phantom opponent on the left, a phantom opponent on the right, pushing him into the center."

Although Mr. Kerrey insists he differs with Mr. Clinton only "at the margin," he clearly remains dissatisfied with the president's refusal to grapple more directly with the question of the ever-growing entitlements that are producing the deficits. In rejecting the tough report of the commission he and former Republican Sen. John Danforth headed, Mr. Kerrey says, Mr. Clinton now is paying the price of deeper Republican slashes that "still don't fix the problem."

While some Democrats are worried that Mr. Clinton will be the one to blink in his confrontation with the Republicans over their seven-year balanced budget, Mr. Kerrey says he is confident the president will veto it when the final version worked out in the House-Senate conference gets to him.

But the Nebraska senator says Mr. Clinton will err if he enters directly into negotiations with the Republicans on the budget after his veto. What he should be doing, Mr. Kerrey says, is telling them to negotiate with the Democrats in Congress first and then bring him the bipartisan product to consider.

By negotiating only with the Republicans, he says, Mr. Clinton "puts himself in the position of 'selling out' Democrats. Somebody's going to say they've been sold out," Mr. Kerrey says, just as Republicans accused President George Bush of doing in his negotiations on a tax cut with the Democrats in 1990, for which Mr. Bush suffered mightily.

But Mr. Kerrey recognizes that in the political climate of an approaching presidential election year, the Republicans want to deal directly with Mr. Clinton, not the Democrats in Congress, to put the president on the spot, forcing him to veto their budget plan or cave in to it.

For all this, Mr. Kerrey remains in support of the incumbent's re-election -- with no assurance, however, that he won't let the world know, as in the past, when his anger at Mr. Clinton gets the best of him.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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