Friends in Disguise: Clinton and the GOP Cooperate

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SO many Republicans are warming up to President Clinton - at least somewhat - because he's getting things done that they want done: like the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement he pushed through Congress and the welfare reform and anticrime measures he supports.

Their opinion is shaped by the political pragmatism at work on the Washington scene. Republicans saw that President Bush was getting nowhere on NAFTA; and he couldn't possibly have maneuvered a tough crime bill through the Democrat-controlled Congress. They knew that no Republican president stood a chance of producing legislation that would put welfare recipients to work.

And now Republicans are finding some comfort in the spending restraints in Mr. Clinton's new budget, although they would like to see more.

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Clinton is not viewed by Republicans as a secret conservative. It seems that most Republicans - according to polls - believe that Clinton is, at least ideologically, an old-fashioned liberal who thinks that problems are best solved by spending government money.

But whatever Clinton's ideology, he has become very practical, particularly after suffering an early and very embarrassing rebuff on his economic stimulus package. (By the way, if Clinton had gotten that proposal passed, it would have been a waste of billions of dollars. The economy didn't need that expensive lift to get going.)

Does Clinton's pragmatic approach to governing mean that from now on he will lean on a marriage with the Republicans in Congress? Not at all. This master politician will become a coalition president only when he can't get the job done with his Democratic majority.

Clinton at first was upset to find he couldn't count on the Democrats in Congress to toe the line for him. But no more. I believe he sees that, by moving forward with initiatives that please a lot of Republicans, he strengthens his reelection prospects: Even more Republicans may vote for him in 1996 than did in 1992.

And the liberal Democrats who may be offended by his Republican-friendly thrust? Clinton believes those voters have no other place to go when election time comes around.

So how will this pragmatist get his health-reform legislation enacted? His approach has yet to be fully unveiled. In the beginning stages, with Hillary Rodham Clinton shaping the program, it seemed to appeal mainly to liberals and, thus, to be heading for problems in Congress.

Health reform at least as a concept has widespread support among Americans. That was apparent a year ago when Clinton came up with his ``universal'' health-care proposal. Polls showed that many people liked this idea.

But what does Clinton do with Republicans and even some Democrats who say there is no health-care crisis? And how about those in Congress who say universal coverage will cost too much?

Clinton's health-care plan could founder. But I think that in the end the president will sign a measure that has won a bipartisan victory in Congress simply because it will provide an alternative to the runaway spending and immense waste of the present health system while moving the nation toward coverage that will in time be extended to all.

Though his plan will be watered-down, the president will declare a major victory for his presidency. And rightly so. Melding Republicans with Democrats behind such a complex and controversial piece of legislation would be a major achievement in itself.

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