Despite Conventional Wisdom, Clinton Chalks Up Early Wins

PSSST. If you read the fine print in Congressional Quarterly, you'll discover a secret about Bill Clinton's presidency: It's been a smashing success so far.

In its "presidential success" study, CQ has found that, through the Memorial Day recess, President Clinton's position has won in the House 96 percent of the time and the Senate 87 percent.

The CQ study looks only at items that go for a final vote, so, for example, the president's failure to end a GOP filibuster on his economic-stimulus bill doesn't count. But the fact remains that he has enjoyed considerable success in Congress.

Mr. Clinton is also beating his two immediate predecessors in putting top appointees in place, according to the White House. As of June 1, it says, Clinton had confirmed 151 people to senior positions. President Reagan had 140 people confirmed and President Bush 97 by this point.

"There are many ways of measuring success and failure" when looking at a president, says presidential scholar Norman Ornstein. "You can do a batting-average approach and show that, in some ways, Clinton has had astonishing success."

In other ways, Clinton is still stumbling. The latest bump comes over his apparent top choice for the Supreme Court, Judge Stephen Breyer. Clinton was on the verge of nominating him when it became known that Judge Breyer had violated a federal law requiring him to pay Social Security taxes for a maid.

Clinton's success in Congress must also be qualified. The White House's liaison to Congress, Howard Paster, admits that some of the legislation that has passed Congress was a "slam dunk," such as the Family Leave Act. The bill had passed Congress under Mr. Bush, but he vetoed it.

Legislation designed to boost voter registration, called "motor voter," falls into the same category. Clinton has also passed his budget resolution, extension of unemployment benefits, and reauthorization of the National Institutes of Health.

His most important success was the close-shave victory in the House to pass his budget, but that one carries a price: In working to pass the budget in the Senate, he has abandoned the controversial Btu energy tax, angering the House members who went out on a limb and voted for a budget that included the tax.

Clinton, of course, has stumbled spectacularly in the first one-twelfth of his term and has record-low public-approval ratings to show for it. His blunders - the failure to end the stimulus-bill filibuster, bungled nominations of Zoe Baird and Lani Guinier for Justice Department positions, and public-relations missteps over a haircut and the White House travel office - dominated media coverage for days on end and have come to symbolize the early going of Clinton's presidency. He has also been bombarded w ith headlines such as "Failed Presidency" (Washington Post) and "The Incredible Shrinking President" (Time magazine).

But it has not been that long since the Washington press corps was singing the chief executive's praises. On March 26, a front-page analysis in the Washington Post asked if Clinton's early successes were "beginner's luck or president's prowess." Republican strategist Ed Rollins was quoted as calling Clinton "as formidable a political figure as I've seen in my lifetime."

Now Mr. Rollins says: "I feel he's wasted a great talent. He understands politics and can communicate with voters, but he appears to have no center, no convictions.... He does have 3 1/2 years left, but the problem is that the first impression is often a lasting impression."

Rollins adds that Clinton made a mistake by trying to go around the White House press corps and take his message to the people through town meetings and interviews with local TV reporters. But specialists on presidential politics agree that the press has gone overboard in dumping on him. "The media notion that the presidency is over is absurd on its face, especially coming from people who, during the campaign, declared Bill Clinton dead and buried," Mr. Ornstein says.

Public-relations blunders aside, Clinton is at core "a very astute politician," says George Edwards III, a presidential expert at Texas A & M University. True, he has backtracked and compromised on issues, but he has remained "true to his concerns" - cutting the budget deficit and fixing the nation's health-care system, Dr. Edwards says.

Even though Clinton has gained a reputation in the corridors of Congress for being easy to "roll" - easy to squeeze concessions out of - "We have to look at the big picture," he says. "Are we going to have deficit reduction? That's the central issue right now. And it looks like he hasn't given up on that."

Clinton has other things going for him, Ornstein says. He is an active president, engaging issues, unlike his predecessor. He has "significant learning ability." In his handling of swing votes in the Senate on his budget, he has shown that he learned lessons from the failure of his stimulus bill. He also, Ornstein says, "clearly has an enormous capacity for rhetoric," as demonstrated in his Feb. 17 State of the Union speech.

"Clinton is trying to pass one of the highest tax increases in modern times; no one ever said that would be easy," says James Thurber, an American University professor. "Two or three years from now, this period will be looked back upon as a time of reform." The cure for what ails Clinton is to score more big wins in Congress, pundits say. Then the press will likely love him again. "There's one thing you have to remember about Washington," Dr. Thurber says. "The fat lady never sings."

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