Clinton's Podium-Pounding Strategy

He waves veto pen, survives hearings, but problems loom

EARLIER this week at the White House, genial spokesman Michael McCurry was complaining about Corrections Day - Newt Gingrich's new habit of setting aside House time to vote against regulations Republicans say are ridiculous.

The real story, claimed Mr. McCurry, is that President Clinton is way ahead of Speaker Gingrich when it comes to cutting red tape. ''So our advice to the Speaker is to get his track shoes on,'' boasted McCurry, practically strutting about the podium. ''He's going to have to run pretty fast to catch up with this president.''

They're feeling good about themselves around the Oval Office these days - and it's not just because the closure of Pennsylvania Avenue means younger staffers can now roller-blade at lunch. The blessed downtime of the president's vacation is glimmering on the horizon, while the administration appears to have weathered a hot July of Waco and Whitewater hearings relatively well.

Lately, Clinton has been a podium-pounder in public, threatening numerous vetoes and charging that Congress is in the thrall of ''special interests''. It's been a reminder that much power - albeit of a negative variety - still rests in White House hands.

But in Washington, momentum can be fleeting, and post-vacation Clinton faces real problems.

The murky depths of Whitewater could yet produce damaging revelations. Foreign policy problems, such as Bosnia and US relations with China, won't go on hold while Clinton is fly-fishing in the Rockies.

Most important, the whole who's-up, who's-down, Washington rhetorical struggle may mean little for Clinton's political future. His image may remain blurred to the electorate at large, despite all his efforts at presenting himself a born-again centrist.

''He's too clever by half,'' claims Emory University political scientist Merle Black. ''I think it's hard for a lot of voters to figure the president out.''

Whether voters are paying attention or not, it's clear that Clinton is now pursuing a two-track strategy that uses the GOP-led Congress as a foil to sharpen his image.

On the one hand, Clinton wants to present an overarching image of cooperation with some GOP efforts. He's said that he opposes partisan gridlock and wants to continue to work toward his much-vaunted ''common ground.''

On the other hand, the president also wants to be perceived as moderating extreme Republican efforts. When it comes to legislation, in other words, the White House wants to be seen as functioning as a filter, not a plug.

Thus Clinton on Tuesday threatened to veto five pieces of legislation: the just-passed bill on lifting the arms embargo against Bosnia; a telecommunications bill that he charges allows too much centralized media power; any attempt to reverse existing gun-control laws; and two of the spending bills now passing through Congress.

Furthermore, according to the White House, Clinton may veto all of the 13 annual spending bills. That's because the president may want all the leverage he can muster to protect education funds, Medicare, and other priorities.

With the GOP clinging fiercely to its budget-trimming priorities, the government may be heading for an appropriations showdown in the fall. If spending bills aren't passed by Oct. 1, the start of the fiscal year, nonessential government operations are technically supposed to shut down. That's what people in Washington mean when they refer to the ''coming train wreck.''

But it's a looming crisis that doesn't seem to be looming much beyond the beltway. The Washington fiscal discussion may seem like so many wrestlers threatening mayhem on gaily grease-painted opponents.

''The threats and posturing and so forth that come out of Washington are so heavily discounted now. They just don't tell you, really, what's going to happen,'' says Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego.

Both sides may maintain a hard line right up to, or just past, the October fiscal deadline. Then they'll compromise. ''They're not going to let the government grind to a halt for any length of time,'' predicts Mr. Jacobson.

To a certain extent the White House now has to talk tough. Earlier attempts at finding common ground, including Clinton's submission of his own balanced budget plan, had begun to alienate the Democratic liberal base. Environmental groups, for instance, recently demonstrated in front of the White House, swinging chain saws and chanting anti-Clinton slogans.

On the whole, though, the White House may be part of a general pre-election-season ideological shift rightward in US politics. As he tries to establish centrist credentials, ''Bill Clinton is trying to become Bob Dole,'' says Mickey Edwards, a former GOP congressmen who now teaches at Harvard University. ''Meanwhile, Bob Dole is busy trying to become Phil Gramm.''

And Phil Gramm? ''He's trying to prove that he really is Pat Buchanan,'' laughs Mr. Edwards.

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