Democrats Aim To Avoid Errors Of Carter Era
Stimulating the economy and creating jobs will be top priorities for Clinton White House
WASHINGTON — COME President-elect Clin-ton's inaugural ceremony, the Speaker of the House will likely have a prime seat.
Of course the Arkansas governor's transition people face weightier matters than deciding who sits where on Jan. 20, but the lessons of President Carter's bad start with Congress are not lost on Governor Clinton's team.
Then-Speaker Thomas O'Neill Jr., the story goes, got only a mediocre seat for the swearing-in. When asked why, top Carter aide Hamilton Jordan reportedly replied he was lucky to get a seat at all.
Students of the Carter years rattle off more-fundamental problems in his relations with Congress, especially at first when it mattered most: a lack of willingness to woo Congress; trying to accomplish too much, too fast; angering members early on with legislation to eliminate pet projects; a congressional liaison team that didn't know how to work Capitol Hill; a Congress fresh out of Watergate, eager to show its muscle with the executive branch.
That was the last time both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue were under the Democrats' control.
Now the Democrats, anxious for redemption, are ready to show they can get it right.
"I know [the Clinton transition people] are getting a lot of advice to the effect of, `Don't repeat Carter," says Bill Galston, a University of Maryland political scientist and adviser to Clinton's campaign and transition.
Ten days after Clinton's election, expectations are high that he and Congress will be able to hit the ground running and have something to show for their first 100 days of one-party rule.
Though congressional leaders complain to the news media about the pressure for accomplishment-by-timetable, they have laid out a general legislative agenda that squares with what Clinton has promised.
Democratic leaders expect easy passage of legislation vetoed by President Bush that most Democrats don't consider controversial. This includes the family and medical-leave act, which allows employees unpaid leave when a child is born or a family member is ill, and the "motor voter" bill, which allows people applying for or renewing a driver's license to register to vote.
But stimulating the economy and putting a jobs program in place will be the top priority. This will require Clinton to steer a delicate course between the liberal and conservative wings of the Democratic Party - which will be "a matter of sitting down for a couple of meetings and working up details," says an aide to a Democratic leader. "I don't think anybody is going into this with the expectation that you're going to reach a loggerhead."
Reform of the health-care system is another priority, but congressional leaders don't expect legislation to be completed in the first 100 days. "Expect this one to take a lot of meetings," says the Democratic aide.
Congressional leaders are trying to lower expectations with reminders that the Founding Fathers planned a natural tension between the two branches of government. But if Clinton as president behaves anything like Clinton as governor, Congress can expect a lot of hands-on treatment to smooth over that tension.
"Members of Congress had better get used to a lot of early morning and especially late-night persuasion sessions over at the White House - or wherever," Mr. Galston says. "When [Clinton] was governor, he was famous for roaming the halls of the Arkansas legislature, a cup of coffee in hand, ready to buttonhole anybody who showed up."
Mr. Carter, in contrast, was not a great political operator - and this exacerbated his political differences with congressional Democrats.
"Carter was to the right of the party on Capitol Hill," says Leo Ribuffo, a George Washington University historian and Carter biographer. "He emphasized efficiency, deregulation, while most of the Democrats wanted to expand the welfare state and national health care. Even if he had been the greatest schmoozer in the world, there would have been problems ... but he wasn't."
The new Congress also has more incentive to work harmoniously with Clinton than did the Carter-era Congress with Carter. Public opinion on Congress has hit an all-time low, and members are eager to show they can accomplish something - especially on the economy.
For the House's unusually large freshman class, 110 strong, that is their mandate. For incumbents returning to Washington, many with lower-than-usual margins of victory, the 103rd Congress could be their last chance to show they deserve their jobs.
Already, the '94 congressional elections loom large as a referendum on Clinton's first two years. If the economy has not turned around, many Democrats could lose their seats. They will not be able to blame any lack of progress on divided government.