Clinton Faces a Restless Congress
With loss of a Texas Senate seat, president must counter new antitax momentum
WASHINGTON — PRESIDENT Clinton needs to win a few - quickly.
More bad news, this time from Texas, landed on Mr. Clinton's desk with a loud thump over the weekend. Texas state treasurer Kay Bailey Hutchison, an antitax Republican, crushed appointed Democratic Sen. Bob Krueger by better than a 2-to-1 margin in a special election. She explained: "People are tired of taxes." (Texas election, Page 4.)
Ms. Hutchison's victory trims the Democratic majority in the United States Senate to 56-44, and it could greatly complicate Clinton's problems on Capitol Hill. Hutchison says Texas voters "want someone to get serious about cutting government spending," and vows, "that's exactly what I intend to do."
The Texas drubbing comes just as Clinton was trying to recover from a painful public-relations disaster involving law professor Lani Guinier. Stung by Senate critics, the president was forced to drop her nomination to head the Justice Department's civil rights division. (How nomination was scuttled, Page 4.)
Many of Clinton's liberal supporters, including the 40-member Congressional Black Caucus, were furious with the president's Guinier decision and vowed political retaliation. The White House, which had failed to screen her controversial writings, again looked inept.
Political bumbling and bad press are taking a serious toll at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And the timing couldn't be worse. Congress returns today from its Memorial Day recess for what could be the most critical two or three months of the Clinton presidency.
In Texas, state Democratic Party chairman Bob Slagle complained that trying to get Mr. Krueger reelected with all of Clinton's problems was "a lot like trying to swim with a battleship anchor strapped to your back."
Most at risk is Clinton's $1.5 trillion budget. He now must balance a more conservative Senate, demanding fewer tax increases, with a more liberal House, trying to protect federal spending programs.
It won't be easy. Voters are grumbling. Congress, eyeing the Texas vote, is restless. Clinton's personal popularity is being pummeled by $200 haircuts and Hollywood pals, by nominees like Mrs. Guinier, and by divisive issues like gays in the military and energy taxes.
The polls are discouraging. In New Jersey, 70 percent of voters now say their impression of Clinton's performance is either "poor" or "fair." Only 28 percent give him "good" or "excellent" marks, according to a survey last week by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research, Inc. Even at home in Arkansas, the president gets positive marks from just 39 percent of the voters, but negative grades from 58 percent.
"What those numbers mean is that Clinton is at Nixon levels during Watergate," says Del Ali, vice president at Mason-Dixon. Mr. Ali concludes: "The Hollywood crowd has to go. Hanging around with Jane Fonda and the Thomasons [Harry and Linda] has to stop. The American people ... want Clinton to succeed. But he has to start doing it now."
Some Clintonites blame the press, including cover stories like "The Incredible Shrinking President" in last week's Time magazine. But experts see more than that.
Stephen Hess at the Brookings Institution says: "The press acts as an echo chamber. Good equals great. Bad equals dreadful. So a few victories under his belt can do a lot to restore his image."
Political scientist Fred Greenstein at Princeton University concludes simply: "You get the press you deserve." In Clinton's case, Dr. Greenstein suggests the problems stem, in part, from trying to do so much.
"He is trying to do lots of demanding things - obviously too many in ways that show little sense of strategy, balance, and self-control," Greenstein says. "But with all that said, I think everybody believes that at the end of this year, there is going to be revenue enhancement, and spending cuts, which are addressed toward the deficit. And within two years, some kind of floor on medical care." Even now, Clinton has made a "terrific impact," even if that was done in a "very sloppy way," he says. Clinton i s forcing people to confront tough issues like deficits, taxes, and homosexual rights - a sharp change from years of drift under President Bush, he says.
Charles Cook, editor of "The Cook Political Report," says Clinton's rapid slide in the polls - the worst drop on record for a new president - started inside the Beltway, with both Congress and the press, but quickly spread.
Even so, Mr. Cook says the public isn't ready to give up on this president. There is a "forced optimism" in America, a feeling that "it really is important for this guy to do well," he says. The danger now is that Clinton could keep falling in public esteem. "We don't really know where the floor is for Clinton," Cook says. "But if his job approval has now gone to the mid-30s, nationwide, you have to assume he cannot drop much below that."
A Newsweek poll, taken by Gallup, puts Clinton's favorability rating at 36 percent, which the magazine calls "the red zone, the Bush-Carter-Nixon zone."
If Clinton is going to climb back, analysts suggest the healing must begin in three places - in the White House, in Congress, and with the public.
Lee Miringoff, a pollster at the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, suggests the president should begin with the people, by rallying support for his programs.
Others suggest his top priority should be a White House shake-up, bringing in more "gray heads," like pundit David Gergen, to say "no" when the president's agenda drifts off course.
Worried by the rapidly approaching 1994 campaigns, Democrats on Capitol Hill are "petrified," Cook says. An unpopular president in the White House could bring big Democratic losses, particularly in the Senate.