COLUMNISTS are giving Mr. Clinton plenty of advice on what he should do next. But the best counsel to a president tempted to be guided by November's elections may come from George Washington, who warned of ``men who governed more by passion and party than by the dictates of justice, temperance, and sound policies.''
President Eisenhower also had some advice that Clinton could well heed. He said on more than one occasion that doing what one feels to be right is also the best political course to take.
The conventional thinking in Washington is that Clinton has no alternative but to bend to the desires of the unhappy voters. Branded as a ``counterculture McGovernik'' by Newt Gingrich, he flinches, moving quickly to show he can out-tax-cut the Republicans. Even liberals are excusing this Clinton lurch to the right as a bow to the inevitable.
But now George McGovern has defended himself in the Washington Post: ``One wonders, notwithstanding their caution about the likes of me, if either the White House (or the newly elected Congress) will escape the continuing voter discontent two years from now.''
He then goes on to say what is often overlooked is that the public does not have much faith in either major party. Half of America's eligible voters no longer vote; less than 40 percent of them went to the polls this November. The bulk of those who do vote tell pollsters they don't expect their lives to improve, even if their party wins.
What Mr. McGovern is telling the president is that he should stick to his principles - and let the chips fall where they may. McGovern surely did that, standing up to widespread angry criticism of his position against the Vietnam War. He was drubbed by the voters, but he's being vindicated by history.
McGovern says that the president has already achieved much - deficit reduction, freer international trade, the Family Leave Act, a domestic service corps, and a crime bill. And a year ago I was giving Clinton an ``A'' for his work on domestic problems - although rating him low for a lack of consistency in foreign affairs. Now some say he is already a failed president.
How does he fight back? If he is a liberal, and McGovern thinks he is, he should proudly own up to it. McGovern certainly does: ``I am proud to be a liberal because I believe that liberalism is responsible for most of the innovative public initiatives that have enriched the lives of people during my lifetime.''
Clinton has shown us that he is at his best as an innovator, as an instrument of change. Sure, he has been rebuffed. He overreached with his health-care plan. The people weren't ready for it. But the public still wants better health care. So Clinton should try again, but move toward this goal incrementally.
This columnist is not trying to say that liberalism is what Americans want - or should have. Perhaps this is the time for a pulling back of government intervention in our lives. Perhaps Clinton hasn't a chance of playing the successful innovator in today's political climate.
But McGovern is right. Clinton should be true to himself and stick to his guns. Right now this looks like an unproductive course. But doing what Clinton feels is right might turn out to be his best chance, as I see it, of winning a second term.