Governor Clinton's 'Credibility Gap'

SOME new counts were added in the press last week to the charge that Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton has a credibility gap.

At least much of the charge, however, stems from Mr. Clinton's history of taking centrist stances that take elements from either side of many issues.

His stand in support of the Gulf war, for example, sets him apart in the Democratic field. It's a difference widely expected to gain him an advantage among the traditional conservative Democrats in the South and industrial Midwest - especially in running against a Republican next fall. But syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak last week cited the Gulf-war issue as part of "Clinton's credibility gap."

The governor says he was first asked about the war two days after Congress voted to authorize it Jan. 14, 1991. His answer was mixed and heavily qualified. As reported in the Arkansas Gazette, Clinton said: "I guess I would have voted with the majority [to authorize war] if it was a close vote. But I agree with the arguments the minority made. I don't think we've exhausted all the options yet."

He would have voted with the majority, he explained, so as not to undercut the United Nations resolution that gave Iraq a deadline for withdrawing from Kuwait. But he also said he would have preferred to give sanctions more time.

By the time Clinton was near entering the presidential race, last September, the ambiguity had fallen away from his position. "I supported the president's position in the Persian Gulf," he told reporters at a Monitor breakfast.

That statement is narrowly true, based on Clinton's earlier remarks, but those remarks also implied that, as president, Clinton would have promoted a different kind of UN resolution that gave sanctions or an embargo more time to work.

Another report was published last Thursday raising questions about Clinton's consistency concerning wetlands. A report by the Scripps-Howard News Service quotes from a letter Clinton wrote to then-White House Chief of Staff John Sununu in March 1990. In it, he asked Mr. Sununu to ease wetlands protection on some farmland because of the impact that a broad new definition might have on farmland in Arkansas and the Mississippi Delta.

"I would encourage efforts to develop a compromise on the 'farmed' and 'prior converted' wetlands issue and would be willing to assist you in this effort," the letter said, according to the news report. Later that year, the Army Corps of Engineers revived exceptions to wetlands protection for farmers.

Last summer, the administration drafted new, much narrower definitions of wetlands that have brought outrage from environmentalists. Clinton was outraged, too. "I strongly condemn George Bush's efforts to rewrite the definition of wetlands to get around his campaign pledge to allow 'no net loss, Clinton's campaign position statement says.

But it also says: "Regulations, however, should be less stringent on lands that have lost many of their values as wetlands, especially farmlands that have already been cleared."

Wetland scientist David Dumond, an officer of the Society of Wetlands Scientists, says that Clinton's argument that some wetlands have lost their function as wetlands and are less valuable is essentially sound. "I would agree in kind. I would like to talk about the degree," he says.

The nuances and complexities of the middle ground Clinton seeks are sometimes difficult to convey in a highly charged campaign. Clinton has a long record of developing centrist, practical positions on national issues in both the National Governors Association and the Democratic Leadership Council.

But the middle ground also offers maximum leeway to adopt convenient campaign postures, a charge made against Clinton frequently in this campaign.

Questions are also being raised over a real estate deal that Clinton and his wife, Hillary, entered with the owner of a failing savings and loan operation that was subject to state regulation.

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