Clinton Gets Back On Political Track

IT'S time to give President Clinton his first grades. With his year-in-office point on the near horizon, we give him an A for the way he hit the ground running in dealing with domestic problems. But we have to drop him down to a shaky C on his rather reluctant and changeable foreign-affairs performance. Those, of course, are the prime areas of presidential responsibility.

The president himself claims a ``pretty good beginning'' for his foreign-policy performance. But Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was President Carter's top foreign affairs adviser, says that Mr. Clinton has failed to fill a ``foreign-policy vacuum'' that he inherited. Mr. Brzezinski, talking to reporters at a Monitor breakfast, blamed Clinton's ``failure to articulate'' such a policy on ``Clinton's preoccupation with domestic problems.'' Brzezinski's view reflects a growing criticism of Clinton among foreign-affairs experts.

As a political president, Clinton eludes any precise grading. He's been a dazzling salesman. Health-care reform couldn't have had better opening-day advocates: the president along with Hillary Rodham Clinton. Instinctively, Clinton is a superb politician. But he has made some mistakes. For example, he met recently with lobbyists and other influential high rollers at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's $1,500-a-plate fund-raising dinner, a gathering that was closed to the press. This was a reversal of a 12-year Reagan and Bush policy of openness for such affairs.

Of this closing of doors the New York Times, which has been hailing much of the Clinton legislative program, commented: ``It's common knowledge that there is an unbroken chain between private fund-raising and special-interest legislation or regulatory favors from the White House.''

Feeling the heat of such criticism, the White House reopened these gatherings to the media. But when was the last time Clinton forcefully went to bat for his campaign finance-reform legislation, which now seems to be going nowhere?

These are merely missteps. For the most part, the president's political dancing has been shrewd and beguiling. For example, there's his espousal of the North American Free Trade Agreement. He obviously believes NAFTA is good for the country, at least in the long run. But he has to buck some powerful figures in his own party, together with organized labor, to win this one.

So Clinton has turned to Republican help on this issue, enlisting and gaining the vocal aid of three former Republican Presidents - Nixon, Reagan, and Bush. Even then he may not win. But in the process he's moved somewhat toward the ideological right, reassuring at least some voters that he was not the wide-eyed liberal he appeared to be, to them, with his early move to open the military's doors to homosexuals. The political dance is even more visible as Clinton now is pushing a crime bill that he says will, among other improvements, put a lot more police officers on city streets. Again, the president undoubtedly believes in this legislation. But he certainly is not unaware that a get-tough-on-criminals approach is going to find more popularity among conservatives than among liberals.

In fact, Democratic Party leaders are letting it be known that at the heart of the president's goals these days lies ``personal security.'' And they cite the health and crime programs as prime examples of presidential personal-security initiatives that should appeal to the ``political center.''

The president is doing a lot of good things. He's been making a conscientious effort, by and large, to end what he has branded as gridlock in Washington. Clinton's victory on a budget bill that at least made some headway in cutting the deficit was certainly a fulfillment of the promise he made during last fall's campaign. But some of his political positioning and maneuvering may be viewed by voters as cynically contrived, and it may turn out to be counterproductive in the long run.

Indeed, Clinton should think twice before accepting the suggestions of those who say he must move this way or that merely to change his political image. His best advice would be from President Dwight Eisenhower who said that just doing what you think is right is the best politics.

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