Helms and the Chief

PRESIDENT Clinton has a problem with Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina. So does Senate majority-leader-to-be Robert Dole (R) of Kansas - arguably a bigger one.

Last week Senator Helms, invited by an interviewer to consider whether Mr. Clinton was ``up to the job'' as commander in chief of the United States armed forces, said ``No. I do not. And neither do the people in the armed forces.''

The remark drew rebuttals from the military, including Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Then on Tuesday, Helms told the Raleigh, N.C., newspaper that the president was so unpopular on military bases in North Carolina that he ``had better watch out if he comes down here. He better have a bodyguard.''

He subsequently issued not an apology, but a statement describing the comment as a ``mistake'' - a statement in which he managed to repeat the offensive comment.

A senator would be out of line to make this kind of comment about a president even once.

But for Helms to continue such rhetoric - we are inclined to call it ``mouthing off'' - is to disqualify himself for the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for which he is in line.

The prospect of Helms heading this committee came up before, when he was the senior Republican on the committee when his party took the Senate in 1980. But he ended up chairing the Agriculture Committee, important to him as a base from which to defend his state's tobacco industry. The sensible and moderate Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana chaired the Foreign Relations Committee.

House Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia has won praise for his imaginative committee appointments, in some cases promoting talent over seniority.

Senator Dole has similar opportunities in the Senate. He has distanced himself from Helms's comments and signaled that he will not allow the North Carolinian to control their party's foreign policy.

The Republicans are, of course, jostling Clinton to see how much they can constrain him on foreign policy. On his recent trip to Asia, he had to be quite explicit about his constitutional prerogatives remaining intact, even after the elections. In his response to Helms's remarks on Tuesday, he made a similar point.

We may yet see traditional bipartisan foreign policy reemerge - or not. What we clearly do not want to see is a Republican foreign policy aimed merely at undermining the president.

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