Can Clinton Again Be The `Comeback Kid'?

IN his post-election press conference the president sought to put a most implausible spin on the outcome: that the voters weren't unhappy with the direction he had been going but, instead, they were upset because he hadn't moved fast enough in that direction. However, Mr. Clinton's face showed that he was shaken by the vote. He had to be reading and hearing the consensus of the election analysts: that the voters were saying they didn't like the way he was running the presidency.

The rejection was issue-oriented, with much resistance having been built up over Clinton programs that appeared to many voters as being too liberal. But there was also an important personal Clinton-related factor in voter unhappiness. The New York Times put its finger on it editorially:

``Exit polls showed that one-third of all voters acted as they did because they disapproved of the President. The polls were not specific, but something about Mr. Clinton - Whitewater, the early foul-ups over important appointments, a White House staff that uniquely combined hubris and incompetence, perhaps even his wife - has clearly nettled many voters to the point of distraction.''

At the White House the president's political advisers are struggling to chart a political path that somehow will lead to reelection. Some are urging Clinton to soft-pedal domestic programs and go into 1996 as a president who has made his mark in foreign affairs. They cite Clinton's recent involvements in Haiti, Iraq, and the Middle East that have improved his ratings. But national security adviser Anthony Lake and economic adviser Robert Rubin assured reporters the other morning over breakfast that Clinton would continue giving top priority to domestic problems. Rubin said that health-care reform still was to be given a big push and assured us that Mrs. Clinton, contrary to speculation, would continue to play the lead role in shaping the program and getting it enacted. He said that health care was a problem that was getting bigger every day and simply couldn't be ignored by the administration. But he indicated the new program would likely follow a smaller, ``incremental'' approach.

The reality, of course, is that Clinton has no alternative to cooperating with the Republicans if he is to get anything done. And even then it may well be that Senate majority leader Robert Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich will get the lion's share of the credit for shaping legislation that is born out of this cooperation. Clinton's strongest hand in the end may be his veto power. But if he ends up vetoing GOP-written legislation that the voters have just shown they want (laws aimed at limiting government, getting tougher on crime, lowering taxes, for example), the president certainly won't be boosting his chances for a second term.

What are Clinton's prospects for reelection? Is he doomed to be a one-term president like Jimmy Carter? It's arguable that this wave of conservatism will sweep him out of office. But I'm not so sure of that. The economy so often determines elections. And right now it appears that the economy should be doing quite well for the foreseeable future. The sagging economy and President Bush's slowness to try to do something about it was the main factor in his slide from high popularity to rejection by voters.

Also it would be a mistake to forget that Clinton has shown himself to be one of the most resilient politicians. He won the name of ``Comeback Kid'' when he returned to the Arkansas governorship two years after losing his bid for reelection following his first term. And he reclaimed the name once again during the presidential primaries after being pronounced politically dead by the experts when he was faced with accusations of infidelity.

This is a most personable president. And he never gives up. It would be a mistake to count him out in 1996.

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