WASHINGTON -- Now endeth the Era of Good Feelings.
President Clinton's interim appointment of Bill Lann Lee as the nation's top civil-rights enforcement officer shatters the administration's cease-fire with congressional Republicans and signals the beginning of renewed partisan warfare in Washington.
The president's recent offensive to soothe his critics on the right produced an extension of trading rights with China, Senate approval of a chemical-weapons accord and a long-sought deal to balance the budget.
But now Mr. Clinton, who has courted the Republicans on Capitol Hill at every turn during the past 15 months, has turned away from his awkward alliance and is veering toward his Democratic home again. As a result, the president is likely to have even more trouble winning Senate confirmation of judges, even more resistance on the health-care proposals he makes next month, even more opposition to the child-care initiatives he presents next spring, even more contention on his plan for voluntary national student tests, even more trouble winning money for his programs.
"This is not a little thing, this is a big thing," said Grover G. Norquist, a conservative theorist close to House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "Everyone who wanted to throw a punch at Clinton now has a reason. And we know who threw the first punch, who went outside the bounds of the way this town works."
By making Mr. Lee the acting civil-rights chief, which technically requires the president to resubmit the nomination early next year, rather than a recess appointment, which would permit Mr. Lee to serve until early January 1999, Mr. Clinton made a bow toward the sensibilities of the Senate. But that distinction, baroque even by Washington standards, could not mask the meaning of the day. "The age of comity has come to an end," said Allan J. Lichtman, an American University historian.
Throughout his administration, the president has tacked -- left to right and then back again -- across the pond of politics. He passed his first budget without a single Republican vote and then pressed for a dramatic overhaul of the nation's health-care system with virtually no Republican consultation or support. Then, accommodating a Republican Congress and alienating his Democratic allies, he embraced a GOP overhaul of welfare and worked with Republican leaders on fiscal issues such as reducing the capital-gains tax that has been a GOP chestnut for a generation.
Now he is tacking left again.
Mr. Lee's appointment comes just after the administration gave a general endorsement to a global-warming agreement negotiated in Kyoto, Japan, that Mr. Clinton does not even dare submit to the Senate. By embracing both Mr. Lee and the Kyoto accord, Mr. Clinton is signaling two elements, along with the end of the deficit, that he hopes will be part of his legacy in the White House. The president clearly hopes to be remembered for his leadership on civil rights and the environment and has calculated it is worth sailing against the Republican wind on both issues.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott declared the Kyoto accord "bad on arrival" on Capitol Hill, and those close to the Mississippi lawmaker say the Lee appointment will destroy the last shreds of his relationship with Mr. Clinton. Mr. Lott may be more conservative in process than in politics, and by bypassing the traditions and protocols of the Senate, Mr. Clinton is widening the gulf with the majority leader.
Like most legislative leaders, Mr. Lott's mobility is constricted by the troops behind him. Mr. Clinton's determination to place Mr. Lee in the civil-rights job undercuts the quiet work of Republican senators such as Paul Coverdell of Georgia and Connie Mack of Florida, who were prepared to negotiate with Mr. Clinton, and strengthens the hands of intransigents such as James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, Sam Brownback of Kansas and Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina, who would prefer no deals whatsoever with the White House.
Not that the administration hasn't broadcast its intention to break with the Republicans. Last week, White House spokesman Michael D. McCurry used words such as "stupid" and "lame-brained" to characterize Senate Republicans and said, "We've been trying to get the Senate to wise up."
That got the Senate's attention.
A timeless tableau
The Lee appointment produced one of the timeless American scenes, the tableau of a new appointee standing in the White House, remembering that he is the child of immigrants and reflecting that a presidential appointment redeems his "parents' hope and faith" in America.
So now the president has a civil-rights chief and maybe the beginning of a rapprochement with the left wing of his party, so alienated over his trade policy and so skeptical of his commitment to the Democrats' traditional progressive values. But he no longer has the ear of conservatives, or the Republicans at the bargaining table.
David M. Shribman is a Boston Globe columnist.
Pub Date: 12/18/97