The Majority Leader Previews the Clinton Years

THE morning headlines were all along these lines: "Clinton Writing Agenda for Economic Change." So it was important to find out how one of the chief implementers of this agenda, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine, was going to get the job done.

The first question tossed at Senator Mitchell at a Monitor-sponsored meeting of journalists went to the heart of the problem: whether the new president would have the necessary public support to get (with Mr. Mitchell's help, of course) his ambitious program through Congress.

One reporter asked how Bill Clinton could call his 43 percent of the vote a mandate. Mitchell put the vote totals in a different light. He said that when one added Ross Perot's share to that of Mr. Clinton's, a majority of the people were voting against George Bush - and that this 62 percent total amounted to a clear mandate for the newly elected president.

Washington observers expect that Clinton will move swiftly in the first 100 days after inauguration to gain congressional approval of tax incentives for new business investment, a job-training program, and a national health-care plan.

Mitchell was asked whether he shared this anticipation.

"Clinton spoke repeatedly over the last 18 months about the need for change in economic policy," Mitchell responded. "He has given a clear indication of what his priorities are. My personal view is that job creation, health-care reform, and deficit reduction are interrelated, that one cannot be effectively addressed without dealing with all of them. And my hope is that we will be able to act on those and other important matters early next year."

Here a reporter asked: "What happens to Clinton's economic plans if the economy begins to cure itself and this becomes quite evident by early next year? Would this change the way you deal with the economy?"

"Obviously," the majority leader replied. "The president and those of us in Congress will keep in mind what is happening contemporaneously in the economy and act accordingly with our proposals."

Asked whether Clinton's proposals for reviving the economy could be put in place without bringing about an "immense" amount of new government spending, Mitchell had a one-word answer: "Yes."

Someone broke the long pause that followed with a quip: "Why is the transition moving so slowly, senator?" (This was just two days after the election.) Everyone, including Mitchell, burst out laughing.

Mitchell also discussed how he expected to work cooperatively with the Republican leadership, and particularly Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas. He said he didn't believe there would be undue dragging of feet from the opposition.

He added that he wouldn't be constrained by a commitment to push through the new president's program in 100 days.

After leaving the breakfast, I reflected on what I had just witnessed. It seemed to me that I had seen a gleam in Mitchell's eyes. After years of conflict with Republican presidents he now has the prospect of working hand-in-hand with a Democratic president to shape the course of the nation.

Yet, as always, the majority leader was restrained and judicious. He provided few specifics and no timetable. He knows that initiatives must come from the new chief executive.

I then thought about the events of the past few days. Once again we had seen the United States political miracle by which, every four years, an electorate that is made up of many diverse groups - ethnically, geographically, religiously, economically - accepts the outcome of an election and rallies behind the newly elected president.

Never have I heard more gracious post-election speeches. All of the combatants - Clinton, Gore, Bush, and Quayle - reached out warmly to their opponents.

The election process had seemed to be endless. Voters had felt put upon. Many were asking: Why can't we shorten the process, cutting it down to just a few weeks? Editorial writers were once again asking why the US couldn't get elections over quickly, as the British do.

Now the US election miracle has taken place again. Perhaps we need all the contention and battling over many months to set the stage for this wonderful coming together.

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