Clinton Slip-Ups May Open Way For GOP Wins

Critics say president muddied his message. FIRST HUNDRED DAYS

NINETY-NINE days into the Clinton presidency, Republicans are pawing the ground, eager for the next elections, encouraged by events.

The Democratic White House is thrown off balance. President Clinton pushes for rapid passage of his budget, aid for Russia, and sweeping health-care reform. Instead, the national spotlight shines relentlessly on the war in Bosnia, gay rights, and higher taxes.

Mr. Clinton, the "new Democrat" from the new South, risks being labeled by critics, including Ross Perot, as just another tax-and-spend liberal politician.

Leon Panetta, director of the Office of Management and Budget, warns that Clinton's economic plan, assailed by Republicans, is in serious danger. So is the $1.8 billion aid program for Russia. As for the historic trade deal with Mexico and Canada, Mr. Panetta calls it "dead." The president, blaming overwork, says that Panetta is unnecessarily discouraged.

House Speaker Tom Foley of Washington, reflecting new caution among Democratic leaders, suggests Clinton slow down health-care reform until other formidable issues are resolved. (Interview, Page 3.)

Hearing all this, a number of Democrats on Capitol Hill are worried. They complain that Clinton has muddied his message. They say privately that the president has failed to motivate his White House team with a "central mission" the way Ronald Reagan did in 1981.

White House troubles could have quick and painful political fallout for Democrats May 1, when Texans replace Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, who became Treasury secretary in January.

Interim Sen. Bob Krueger, the Democratic candidate in Texas, is having difficulty. But Clinton, his popularity sagging badly in the Lone Star State, is unable to help. Unless Senator Krueger wins an outright majority on Saturday, which now seems unlikely, he will be thrown into a runoff which he could lose, analysts say.

Republicans look at Clinton's problems and rub their hands. Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, already talks about the GOP regaining a majority in the Senate in 1994. They now are outnumbered by Democrats, 57-to-43.

REPUBLICANS are gleefully dragging out their old, anti-Democratic slogan, "Tax and Spend," and hanging it like a banner across the Clinton White House.

Rep. Bill Paxon (R) of New York, chairman of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, gloats that in 14 weeks, Clinton has proposed 14 new tax increases - and he lists them all, from a Btu tax on energy to an increase in Medicare premiums.

GOP chairman Haley Barbour, citing Clinton's failure to provide promised middle-class tax relief, says, "The average American family will take it on the chin."

With the president struggling, several possible GOP hopefuls for the White House in 1996 are joining the anti-Clinton chorus. They include, besides Senator Gramm: Senate minority leader Robert Dole; Jack Kemp, former secretary of housing and urban development; and William Bennett, former secretary of education.

Analysts say Clinton's most-urgent priority is to "focus like a laser beam," to use his words, on the economy. Pollster Del Ali with Mason-Dixon Opinion Research says that while Clinton promised during the campaign to be a new kind of Democrat, one who stood up to special interests, "he could instead be headed down the road of the old Democrat."

Mr. Ali explains: "If President Clinton is only visible on issues like gay rights, he's headed down a difficult road, politically." Unless he changes course, Ali says he could be "four years and out."

Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, which promotes "new Democrat" ideas, says Clinton deserves credit for "taking on the big issues, and not shrinking from them like Bush did."

The president's problem is one of political balance, Mr. Marshall says. For example, he says supporting gay rights is principled, but the White House argument in favor of "rights" has overshadowed the other half of Clinton's message - responsibilities.

Marshall suggests that Clinton faces three problems. First, the "governing philosophy of the new Democrats is not being conveyed." Second, "Republicans have turned public attention to tax and spend, and away from public investment and deficit reduction." Third, Clinton's values "need to be explained and defended in the context of responsibilities, not just demands for new rights and entitlements."

As if to support Marshall's views, House minority leader Robert Michel (R) of Illinois says: "When we think of the first 100 days of the Clinton presidency, only one word leaps to mind immediately: Taxes." By Day 200, that has to change, analysts say.

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