WASHINGTON -- For almost four years I've struggled not to embrace the charge that President Clinton is really "Slick Willie," a craven politician of flawed character who has no core beliefs, no ideological moorings and no allies he won't abandon when he thinks it benefits him.
I stopped giving him the benefit of doubt in 1993 when, under pressure, he dumped Lani Guinier as his choice to head the civil-rights division of the Justice Department. I was reminded then that in Mr. Clinton's Arkansas they have a term -- "yellow belly" -- for men who lack backbone.
In his display of political cowardice last week, when he decided to sign an appalling welfare-reform bill, Bill Clinton showed anew that political betrayal is his game when he thinks he can gain from it.
I'd be writing a column endorsing someone else for the presidency if I had a choice. But Bob Dole is no alternative in terms of compassion for America's poor. He is one of the Republicans who scared the president out of his wits by pushing this "welfare reform" war on America's poor. And Ross Perot and his Reform Party so far don't seem to offer an acceptable alternative to anything.
I must admit that from a strictly political standpoint, President Clinton probably helped himself by agreeing to sign this dreadfully punitive legislation. He probably guaranteed his re-election. And I know that Mr. Clinton isn't likely to lie awake nights saying that he took an immoral stance when he already was so far ahead of Senator Dole that he didn't need to abandon basic principles of justice to retain power.
There is a fundamental political-social tragedy in the Clinton scenario for millions of Americans, especially blacks, working people, "liberals" and others who have tied their fates to the Democratic Party. Mr. Clinton's welfare-reform betrayal is an excruciating reminder of the vulnerability to suffering of people who have no place else to go when they are treated like dirt.
Blacks in the GOP
Senator Dole has won over a small but significant number of blacks who long ago decided they just couldn't trust the zTC president. Yet the GOP does almost nothing to welcome blacks to the party, except for the weird business of courting Colin Powell. Perhaps, in the wake of his colossal blunder regarding his refusal to speak at the NAACP convention, Mr. Dole will make a real effort to get a respectable percentage of black votes. But I doubt it.
As of now, blacks face the prospect of muting their anger and swallowing their pride as they half-heartedly help Mr. Clinton to four more years in the White House -- barring some great shifts in national opinion, or some dramatic impact of third and fourth parties.
No real Democrat of any race or background could have been comfortable with Bill Clinton last week as he not only betrayed his most faithful supporters, but lied through his teeth to explain his reasons for doing so.
He described this welfare bill as "strong on work . . . and child care." The bill is strong in rhetoric about work, but there's nothing in it that will produce jobs for those Americans who lack education and training, or are underemployed because of entrenched American racism. Most of the provisions of the bill are punitive where children are concerned, especially children unfortunate enough to be born to unmarried women. And a special hell is reserved for those born to unwed teen-agers. Their "child care" outlook has never been bleaker.
On the whole, the Clinton cabinet opposed this welfare legislation with passion. His campaign aides and pollsters wanted him to sign it with even greater passion because they felt it made their jobs of winning easier.
The whole mess unmasked again a president who would rather win by abandoning principle than gamble that he can win through moral commitment and bold leadership.
Americans who applaud Mr. Clinton because he bent to their passions and prejudices this time are going to discover how dangerous and costly it becomes to have a leader who can't be fully trusted.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 8/06/96