Clinton's Bottom-of-the-Ninth Effort on Health Care

THE question here in Washington hasn't been about whether the baseball season will go on. It's been whether President Clinton can once again hit a home run, as he did with his economic legislation and the North American Free Trade Agreement. Can he somehow, in the ninth inning with combatants locked in what looks like a near-tie on health care, once again hit the ball out of the park?

It will take all of Mr. Clinton's acknowledged skills as a politician to win this close one. He's trying mightily. He's making speeches on TV and radio; he's pushing the Mitchell plan wherever he goes and has a chance to speak out or answer questions. He's even doing nightly TV ads. As the final decision draws closer, Clinton is also on the phone, imploring the uncertain among the Democrats to come on board. As on previous close votes, he's also got some political plums to hand out as quid pro quos for those who will give in to him, put aside their reservations about the legislation, and display party loyalty.

But this time will he be able to persuade these reluctant Democrats to win another one for the Gipper? He's giving his all; but will it be enough - particularly since he now is forced to share some of his time with trying to save his crime bill? Also, during previous razor-thin victories, Clinton has been riding high in the polls. But now his popularity has fallen, and his overall job-performance rating is very low. More damaging, however, is the negative attitude being registered among the American people. One recent poll shows that 60 percent of the public does not trust Clinton.

Indeed, how will Clinton be able to turn ``no'' votes into ``yeses'' among politicians who may well wonder whether they might be cutting into their own support back home by siding with an unpopular president?

Many Democratic senators and all members of the House are up for reelection in November. For the most part, they are being very slow to run on Clinton's record. Instead, most of them are separating themselves from the president or, at least, not mentioning his name. In fact, the president's own pollster has recommended that Democrats run independent campaigns this year, softpedaling their allegiance to Clinton.

But Clinton remains persistent. No president since Lyndon Johnson has worked so hard and for so many hours in twisting arms among legislators. No previous president in my memory has turned a legislative contest into an all-out political campaign, where he makes it so clear that not just the legislation but his own presidency is at stake.

Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas, one of the main opponents of the presidential-backed Mitchell health plan, was in for a Monitor breakfast the other morning. He says that Republicans have enough votes to stall or even derail Clinton's health initiative. The senator says he wants health care, but it has to be what he calls ``affordable.''

During the breakfast, Mr. Gramm mentioned that one important factor driving the Democratic vote on this legislation was the large stake the president has in winning. To some of the reporters present, it seemed as though Gramm was unintentionally providing a good insight into why he might lose in his effort to defeat Clinton on this issue.

From the moment he took over the White House, Clinton has been pointing to health care as the accomplishment that would not only crown his administration but would also be the definitive measure for judging its success or failure. He has talked only of success, of course. But he has been responsible for leaving the widespread perception that a failure to pass health-care reform would be the mark of a badly marred, if not failed, presidency.

No doubt about it: A save-the-presidency feeling has become a driving force in the Democratic vote on this all-important issue. It could become the motive that in the end will persuade the few foot-dragging Democrats needed for a Clinton victory to line up behind him.

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