Clinton's Arkansas Record Reveals Pragmatic Style

Candidate did well in Little Rock, but Washington might be tougher

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IF American voters deliver the presidency to Bill Clinton this November, the Arkansas governor will rely heavily on his political past as he sets priorities, chooses advisers, and seeks congressional support.

A Clinton victory will likely mean the new chief executive will focus on issues he tried to champion in his poor Southern state: more opportunities for working people, a reassessment of the tax burden, improvements in education, incentives and mandates for American business.

In many respects, Mr. Clinton's governance has shown a great deal of compromise - a pragmatism needed for political survival in Arkansas, which has a weak governorship. But he has also demonstrated that once committed to a goal, there is a threshold through which he will not cross in the name of consensus.

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Freshman Arkansas Sen. John Pagan calls Clinton "a master of the legislative process."

At the state capitol, "he's in the hallways, doing business out in the open with a styrofoam cup of coffee, and a bunch of TV cameras, puttin' his arms around a group of folks on one side, then crossing the hall to another bunch," Mr. Pagan says.

On tough issues, Clinton calls small groups of lawmakers together, mixing inexperienced legislators with powerbrokers. This "shrewd tactic" works, Pagan says. "Heck, he makes us all feel important."

Arkansas political consultant Sheila Galbraith Bronfman says Clinton's familiarity is natural because "this is a small state. During an election in Arkansas, he'll get out and shake every voter's hand."

The big question is whether Clinton's conciliatory governing style will transfer to Washington if he is elected president.

Thomas Cronin, a presidential scholar at Colorado College, argues that Clinton's many years as a governor immersed in state politics do not mean he is well-prepared for the nation's capital - a town full of special interests and political alliances.

"State legislatures are usually amateur - they meet half the year, and have very small staffs," Professor Cronin says. By contrast, he adds, "Congress is in business for itself. And it is geared up to be a rival to the executive branch."

But Cronin expects that Clinton will find support from moderate Capitol Hill Democrats and Republicans. "They'll all feel compelled to compromise and get things done, because they know, if they don't, they'll be voted out," he says.

Jerry Jewell, president pro tem-elect of the Arkansas Senate and the first black to be elected since Reconstruction, says that Clinton's issues as governor - such as higher education standards and vocational training - are compelling national concerns.

Dr. Jewell believes that Clinton's work to improve education - in part, by toughening teacher requirements - and job prospects - through worker training and tax incentives to attract investments - will help the state's poverty-stricken black population.

Clinton's efforts to provide "more investment capital for small and medium-sized business, the backbone of the economy of Arkansas and of the United States economy, will add more and better paying jobs," he says.

Even with the purported gains in education, however, Arkansas's school system still ranks near-last among states on college attendance, high school drop-out rate, and other statistics.

Dr. Jewell counters charges that Clinton has done little to improve the abysmal living standards of blacks or to pass laws prohibiting discrimination.

While Arkansas failed to pass a comprehensive civil rights bill - sponsored by Jewell, supported by Clinton, and voted down by the state House of Representatives - "the governor was right not to accept a watered-down version of it," Jewell says. "A bad law is worse than no law."

State Senator Pagan, a self-described "liberal," says the state legislature is a very diverse body, where Clinton's "changes" have been tough to sell. The state's powerful business and industrial lobby - embodied in the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce - bitterly opposed the sweeping civil rights measures that Clinton advocated.

Pagan recalls recent civil rights battles. "Daytime, we met in the capitol, and then we went to the governor's mansion at night. Clinton put us in one room, and the Chamber representatives in another," he says. "And the governor shuttled back and forth between us, just like Henry Kissinger did with the Arabs and the Israelis. Clinton could have easily gone with the Chamber's version, and claimed a victory that he was signing a civil rights bill, but instead he recognized it was a fraud."

Pagan says Clinton caved into "regressive policies, such as the five cent per gallon gasoline tax, a tax on food and on used cars that hit low- and middle-income people hard." The governor accepted those taxes, Pagan explains, because income tax increases would have been too tough to get through the legislature.

The governor has often been willing to champion business interests. Pagan concedes that due to tax incentives for Arkansas-located businesses, "we lead the country in new manufacturing jobs."

Gene Sperling, Clinton's campaign economic policy director, says, "I better not send him a proposal - whether it has to do with free trade or health care coverage - if the private sector hasn't looked at it."

Clinton regularly canvasses business leaders and economists, from universities to investment banking houses. "He's no ideologue - he reads and considers a wide range of thought," Mr. Sperling says. -PATHNAME- /usr/local/etc/httpd/plweb/DBGROUPS/paper/database/tape/92/sep/day30/30012.

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