One President, Two Speeches

PRESIDENT Clinton's State of the Union address, more popular with the public than with the pundits, was elbowed aside by the Republican congressional juggernaut, pushing its agenda. Before the week had ended, the Republicans (in an emerging coalition with conservative Democrats) dominated with two achievements - the balanced-budget constitutional amendment in the House and the limitation on unfunded mandates in the Senate.

What seemed to work better for Mr. Clinton than a new legislative agenda was reminding people of some of his older philosophical concepts. On teenage pregnancy, he called not so much for a legislative program as a national crusade. The spirit of cooperation that Americans display in natural disasters he would like to see harnessed to address some of our unnatural disasters. He believes that separation of church and state does not mean separation of religion as a constructive force in American life.

If the president did not succeed fully in redefining himself for the public, it is because he has not quite defined himself to himself. He seemed to be trying to present himself both as the stand-up guy who will stick to his guns and the cave-in guy who sees the light at the end of the last election and has become a born-again conservative.

Maybe Clinton should have made two speeches. One might have gone like this:

``I know we lost the election badly, and mainly because the Republicans spent millions of dollars poisoning the mainstream of politics, blinding voters to the great accomplishments of our first two years.

``Those who expect me to throw in the towel and ride out the next two years until inevitable defeat don't know me. There are things I will fight for - win, lose, or draw. Among them is aiding the long-suffering middle class and not giving handouts to the overprivileged. Among them too is reforming welfare and trying to bring teenage pregnancy under control without punishing innocent children. My list includes recognizing that the government - downsized, streamlined - is not the enemy of the people, but the people's last resort.

``I stand before you as the true conservative, devoted to conserving the best of the past against the assault of mindless radicals who would dismantle health and environmental regulations, erected to protect people from despoilers, polluters, and toxic dump poisoners.

``I believe voters will discover the profound mistake they made last November, but whether they do or not, here I stand.''

The other speech would go like this:

``To be a New Democrat is to be pragmatic, to cut your losses and settle for what you can get. I extend the hand of bipartisanship to the Republicans, ready to learn from my mistakes.

``People want lower taxes, and they shall have them in the best package I can work out with the Republican leadership. People are tired of welfare, and we will dismantle it - as compassionately as Congress will let me. On health care, I erred in asking too much, too soon, so I will support Congress in seeking something less.

``Although I may not like everything Congress enacts, I will not contribute to gridlock by overuse of the veto. Embedded deep in the American tradition is the idea, `If you can't lick 'em, join 'em.' Nobody ever said of Bill Clinton that he doesn't know which side is up. So to the extent feasible, you will find me in the next two years ready to join 'em.''

It would take two Clintons to make those speeches. But there's only one. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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