NEWLY elected presidents are usually advised to get divisive issues out of the way early so voters have time to work through their anger before going to the polls again. Bill Clinton may have taken that bit of advice to heart. At his first post-election press conference, he told reporters he plans to follow through on not one or two, but three controversial commitments.
He says he will honor his personal pledge to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military, give Haitian boat people seeking asylum a fairer hearing, and end a gag rule which bars medical personnel in clinics from getting federal money if they mention abortion as an alternative for pregnant women.
The first two could cost him support. The third will upset only his critics.
It won't help Mr. Clinton to start off with a major public controversy over a code of conduct intended to resolve the tough privacy issue involved in mixing men of different sexual preferences at close quarters. It's the kind of issue the public can get into in a big way. Everyone will have an opinion, and a lot of the opinions won't be favorable to Clinton.
He may feel he doesn't have a choice on lifting the ban on homosexuals in the military. He made a firm commitment to lift it on morning talk shows, on MTV, on the Arsenio Hall show. David Mixner, a political consultant active in that community, says the pledge united the gay and lesbian community into a solid voting block that gave Clinton 7 million votes, roughly 1 in every 6 votes he received. Mr. Mixner raised more than $3 million for Clinton's campaign. He doesn't oppose a code of conduct. It would b e "sexual harassment" and grounds for disciplinary action or even discharge if one soldier made a pass at another, he says. "We just want to be treated like anyone else. We're not after quotas or affirmative action."
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell says it is not that simple. He sees military morale in terms of male bonding. The troops, he argues, fight to save their buddies as much as themselves. If homosexuals can be open about their sexual preferences, Mr. Powell fears it will interfere with the military bonding process.
Clinton also owes a lot to the group of top military officers led by Admiral William Crowe, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who campaigned for him in the closing weeks of the campaign and, by so doing, helped blunt a heavy attack from the Bush camp on Clinton's draft record. Admiral Crowe doesn't want the ban lifted and neither do many top officers at the Pentagon. There's talk of high-level resignations if it is lifted.
Though Clinton's promise to give Haitians a better deal has apparently raised hopes in Haiti, he also said he recognizes the difference between a political refugee who would be accepted and one fleeing for economic reasons. That tells us his standard is no different than Bush's, unless he allows the Haitians to come here to apply. In that case, they will simply disappear into Florida's big Haitian community, leaving Clinton's fellow Democrat, Gov. Lawton Chiles, with a bigger, more expensive problem.
Helping Haitian refugees is not a vote-getter, nor is it good policy at a time when millions of unskilled workers are without jobs, and states like California and Florida are struggling to contain the heavy costs to taxpayers of caring for new immigrants. Clinton's pledge on this issue was probably a nod to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has tried to turn it into a matter of race.
Clinton has a winner in the gag rule. He is apt to act quickly to cap off the "Year of the Woman" by nullifying it, pleasing his supporters who tend to be pro-choice on abortion. It will point up the split in the GOP on that issue.
But making hard-core supporters happy isn't apt to make up for the fallout from his other two commitments. If Clinton reneges on his pledge to the homosexual community, a big share of that vote may start drifting back to the GOP in the hope that that party will come up with a social liberal in 1996. Mixner says many, perhaps half or more, have conservative leanings on economic issues. In the past, they felt comfortable voting Republican and, four years ago, Mixner estimates Bush received 38 percent to 42
percent of the homosexual vote.
If Clinton carries out his pledge and lifts the ban, a lot of Reagan Democrats are going to wonder why they voted for him.
Clinton's pledges will be a real test of his grit as a leader.