Can Clinton Deliver In Two Directions?

SOMEHOW I was reminded of Sid Caesar's role years ago in the play "Little Me" when I watched President Clinton deliver his State of the Union speech. Caesar in that production was a fellow who could do just about everything at once. He was going to Harvard and Yale at the same time and he wore a sweater with both an "H" and a "Y" on it - denoting his remarkable ability to win letters simultaneously in football at both institutions.

Mr. Clinton seemed to be playing Sid Caesar. He proclaimed that the "era of big government is over" and the Republican congressmen on his left shouted their approval.

Then he added a "but" and made it clear that he would still be in there battling for social programs. The Democrats sitting on his right stood up and cheered.

Afterward Clinton was getting A's from just about everyone. He had been warm and so persuasive - just the opposite of Sen. Bob Dole, who followed with the Republican response.

Clinton's act was so good that no one would have wanted to follow it. Indeed, Dole looked like he would rather have stayed at home. He made a sensible speech, outlining a straight Republican line of action: a budget on the GOP terms or else.

But he wasn't at all forceful. He looked tired. And he never smiled - as if to say "How can I smile? I've already lost this debate this evening." This Clinton vs. Dole confrontation had been regarded by many observers as the first head-on debate between the probable candidates next fall.

The next morning at a Monitor breakfast, I asked our guest, Laura D'Andrea Tyson, chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers, how she would describe the political philosophy of a president who seemed, to me, to be making an appeal to the right and to the left at the same time.

Ms. disagreed with the question - maintaining there was a "clear ideological" thrust in Clinton's expressed positions. You could balance the budget and still see that nobody got hurt at the same time, she said.

Perhaps she's right. Perhaps, like Mr. Caesar, Clinton can protect and promote the interests of everyone at the same time. "Is this what he means when he calls himself a New Democrat?" I asked. Tyson didn't seem to know what being a "New Democrat" entailed. But she clearly was pleased with Clinton's adept performance.

Clinton really is a pragmatist. He does what he thinks needs to be done. Fundamentally, he wants to do good - as most presidents do. They all want to be remembered as presidents who tried to help people and to move the country forward.

Some presidents - Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan are good examples - see doing good as implementing the philosophy of their party. But not Clinton. He can make promises to liberals and conservatives at the same time because he's probably thinking of hoped-for results and not philosophy.

Clinton sounded so good to so many people with variant views the other night, just as he did to many independents and Republicans as well as Democrats in 1992. Back then he was talking about a tax break for the middle class and welfare reform that would please conservatives. But there was also a liberal agenda in his campaign rhetoric.

When he became president he acted on the latter first: trying to improve the lot of gays in the military and making a mighty effort to put a health-care program into place. He failed at both and in the process irritated a lot of liberals. Then Clinton was unable to provide tax help for the middle-income groups. Instead he heaped on taxes that hit the wealthy most but touched middle-incomers too.

In the euphoria of his exceptionally well-delivered speech the other night the public seemed to forget that Clinton, even if he has good intentions, has trouble moving in two directions at the same time.

Sid Caesar could do it. Julius Caesar might have done it. But Bill Clinton? We'll wait and see.

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