Polls Versus Goals

BILL CLINTON's admiration of the Kennedy administration is well known. But it's probably more coincidence than imitation that finds the Clinton administration following a popularity curve similar to that of his idol.

Like Kennedy, Clinton suffered a second year and early third year down in the polls and down in power relative to Congress. And, like Kennedy, Clinton has climbed back in polls and visibility by taking foreign- policy initiatives and populist domestic stands that regained the appearance of decisive leadership.

Poll-confirmed success is addictive, whether in a business marketing campaign or a preelection political marketing campaign. But in government (as in business) leaders need to distinguish between immediate numbers and the long term good of, in this case, the nation.

Take a look at new domestic and foreign-policy moves in this context:

Domestic. Mr. Clinton laid out a reasonable, if unspecific, response to GOP belt- (and Beltway-) tightening plans during the summer and early fall. He showed a willingness to meet the Senate's moderate approach to curbing runaway Medicare and Medicaid costs and reshaping welfare through further state experimentation seeking to design humane but more efficient programs.

Sensible hands on both sides saw this as a sane way to accomplish two essential aims to: (1) curb runaway growth of national debt and interest payments before any big economic downturn, so as to make future federal priming of the economy possible; and (2) not allow runaway entitlement spending to undermine the unemployment and retirement safety net for future generations - in particular the impending flood of baby boom retirees.

Unfortunately that sensible position (with its tempering of House GOP cuts in research and environment protection) disappeared in the image-driven fight that led to two government shutdowns. At this juncture, the moderate alternative put forward by a bipartisan group of Senate moderates provides the best road map back to the inevitable compromise both sides need to reach.

Foreign Policy. Here, the Clinton administration is at last finding positions that bolster US long-term interests. For example: newly announced talks that will push Syria, Lebanon, and Israel toward peace. That is both morally right and a further step in the direction of safeguarding oil supplies for Europe and East Asia.

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