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The centrist president Clinton's second term: Will he and GOP really cooperate on 21st Century problems?


HAVING SEIZED enough of "the vital center" to win a second term, President Clinton in his first post-election policy speech, has cast himself as chief proprietor of that crucial political turf.

Balancing the budget is his first priority, he says, thus reiterating his claim to a high-profile issue Republicans once monopolized. His will be a government, he says, that is hard to pigeonhole as right or left, and as such will be a frustration for those who try to communicate or describe or (implicitly) thwart it.

His decision to cast himself as a "centrist" president was something he came to uncertainly but perhaps inexorably. As governor of Arkansas, Mr. Clinton was a founder of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council that became his base for national attention.

But after winning the White House four years ago, he veered to the left with a big spending proposal, a grandiose national health plan and a controversial attempt to deal with gays in the military. His antenna spotting trouble, he soon brought Republican David Gergen onto his staff, saying: "I'm way out of position. I'm way off to the left. I want to get back to the DLC."

But he didn't jump fast enough. His early mistakes led to the Democratic debacle in the 1994 congressional elections that, ironically, was Mr. Clinton's salvation. While the Republicans lurched to the right, he moved into the vacuum at the center. The question now is whether he is really willing to share it with Republican leaders who are cooing cooperation.

In his speech yesterday to the DLC, Mr. Clinton recalled that a year ago, as the budget battle that led to government shutdown was at a climax, he had wondered aloud before that same organization whether the political center could hold. "The answer is clear," he now says. "The center can hold, the center has held and the American people are demanding that it continue to do so."

Well, we shall see. The president made only passing reference to the financial problems of the Medicare program that will be harder to fix because of his demagogy during the election.

This kind of issue will test his willingness to lead in his second term. It is one thing to trot out incremental agenda items like welfare reform adjustment, education initiatives and cleaning up campaign financing practices that have embarrassed his party. It is quite another to take the tough steps now on Medicare, Social Security and inflated cost-of-living adjustments that would ward off 21st century financial crises looming on the other side of the William Jefferson Clinton Memorial Bridge.

Pub Date: 12/12/96

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