WASHINGTON -- What next, President Clinton signing a bill confirming the virtues of apple pie?
Now that he has reinforced the motherhood vote, before a Rose Garden bevy of happy moms and dads, by signing the bill assuring 48 hours of insured hospital care for new mothers and babies, there may be nothing left but an Apple Pie Preservation Act for the president to toss at hapless Bob Dole.
Presidents seeking re-election have always used the power and opportunities of incumbency to help their own political cause, strewing goodies in the path as they go from state to state on the campaign trail -- a water project here, an education grant there, plus raising very big bucks for their party on the side.
Our own favorite was the time in 1976 when President Gerald Ford, beating off a challenge from Ronald Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination, had the Suffolk County (N.Y.) Republican chairman, a fellow named Edwin Schwenk, into the Oval Office for a chat about his county's delegation to the GOP convention.
Afterward, Schwenk reported that the president of the United States had agreed to take a closer look at prospective cuts in federal aid for a sewer district in the county. And when the gentleman later announced that the Suffolk delegation was backing Ford, well, what else would any sensible person expect?
That, however, was retail vote-getting. The incumbency in President Clinton's hands -- and those of his super-efficient campaign strategists and implementers -- is much more astute in the wholesale game, swiftly seizing opportunities that come to the Oval Office desk to court, stroke and otherwise satisfy voters by the millions.
This practice is causing frustration not only within the Dole campaign but among Republicans in Congress who don't want to, and won't, let themselves be caught on the wrong side of motherhood, or other such issues grasped by Clinton for political gain.
Take, for another example, the law now assuring up to 12 weeks of unpaid family leave to attend to medical problems. The law has become almost universally popular, so much so that Mr. Clinton is now advocating extension of family leave for parents to attend school conferences, PTA meetings and the like. Republicans in Congress, experts at feeling the public pulse who voted 204-16 for the 48-hours-for-new-moms hospital stay, will probably roll over for that one, too.
The long federal arm
But probably not Bob Dole, who has curiously taken issue with the family leave now on the books as an example of the unwanted "long arm of the federal government" in people's lives -- and thus leaves himself open again to Democratic charges of hard-heartedness.
When Senator Dole chose to attack the concept of family leave as intrusive and harmful to business and job growth, President Clinton quickly pointed to his claim of 10.5 million new jobs created since the law's enactment. The Clinton campaign also ran a devastating television ad on the issue. Mr. Dole certainly does not seem to be the kind who would take candy from a baby, yet, the Democrats point out, he's against family leave.
The president paints himself as the defender not only of motherhood but also of poor defenseless children, such as those of illegal aliens who under the immigration-reform bill Senator Dole supported would have been excluded from public schools. Nervous Republicans in Congress are buckling. They realize that if Mr. Dole continues to come off as Darth Vader, not only is he as the captain of the Titanic likely to go under, but many of them can go down with him on November 5.
On the family-leave and other issues, the president has been deploying his rapid-response issues team. In 1992, the Clinton team used the tactic of rapid response to fend off various attacks on its man. In 1996, it is using it to smother Mr. Dole with goodies that flow from the beneficence -- and cold political calculations -- of presidential incumbency.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 9/30/96