Clinton Sequel: Fewer Policy Zigzags?

Less than two years ago, his presidency seemed shipwrecked, washed aground by a tremendous Republican tide. Tonight President Clinton takes to the podium here as the most reelectable Democrat in 60 years.

In accepting the nomination, Mr. Clinton will preview a second term, offering a vision of America in the new millennium and proposals such as new tax credits. Says one adviser, the Clinton presidency is "a work in progress."

No matter how focused the speech is, however, it won't stop many from wondering about the last four years of apparent zigzagging, from center to left and left to center, raising questions for voters about the president's true convictions.

If given a second term, will Clinton chart a perceptibly straighter policy course, knowing he no longer faces another campaign? No matter how resolute, the president may still end up shifting with the tides. Several unknown factors, such as which party controls Congress or the state of the economy, would influence the direction of a second term.

But if Clinton's past is a reliable prologue, it would indicate a second term that would be more tempered and less disjointed than the first. That assumption is based partly on the uncanny parallels between Clinton's early years as governor of Arkansas and his first term in the Oval Office.

Brash and determined, Clinton took office in January 1979 as the youngest governor in the nation. His inaugural address was so chock full of nitty gritty, it even covered rules for how long landlords should hold tenants' security deposits.

Clinton presided over a chaotic court. His staff was young and unmanaged, his agenda overreaching. He was full of plans for new departments, rural health-care reform, and an education overhaul. He'd made 53 promises before reaching office, notes biographer David Maraniss, and broke two on his first day. When he played chicken with the poultry industry, he made his costliest mistake.

Coming into office, the governor declared the Arkansas highway system a state disaster and called for $3.3 billion in improvements - a hefty sum for such a poor state. To pay the bill, he proposed higher car licensing fees and road levies, angering the trucking and poultry industries. In a compromise fight, Clinton alienated everyone from small-car owners to big-rig drivers.

Other factors contributed to Clinton's defeat after his first four-year term, but for most voters, the road-levy fight showed the young governor's arrogance, and that was enough.

In the next two years, with the help of political strategist Richard Morris, he would plot his comeback, admit his mistakes, travel the state, rebuild a base, and reclaim the job he lost.

Once back in office, under Mr. Morris's advice, Clinton started more slowly. He focused on education and he fought the utilities for lower rates. He discovered the value of building consensus before taking action. He was learning.

His first term as president looks remarkably similar: an ambitious agenda, a helter-skelter staff, a sharp repudiation. After his health-care overhaul collapsed and the Democrats lost control of Congress - a defeat that reflected voter rejection of the president's initiatives - Clinton withdrew. He brought Morris back in. He slowed down, admitted his mistakes, regrouped.

Those around him say he is growing. He is more measured and temperate. Clinton's comeback reflects, in part, "exactly what you'd expect with a bright man in a big office: He's getting better at the job," says James Carville, a political strategist and informal adviser to the president.

As he makes his case for a second term tonight, advisers say, Clinton will spin some positive numbers: the deficit cut by 60 percent; 10 million new jobs in the private sector; 250,000 fewer federal employees, resulting in the smallest government since the Kennedy administration. Even though it took a GOP Congress to pass the bill, Clinton signed welfare reform into law.

Looking forward, the president will outline his vision for America at the dawn of a new century. In broad terms, that means redefining the role of the federal government and tackling entitlement-reform, particularly the sensitive programs of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

Although Medicare is expected to become insolvent in 2001, last year's budget battle reflected the volatility of reform. Freed from the constraints of coming elections, Clinton could spur a debate over the future of these programs. For now, however, he only plans to form a bipartisan commission to examine ways to save Medicare.

To secure a place in history, "he should go after the big issues, and that means entitlements," says Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University. "It would be a huge mistake to just fine-tune the presidency. He has to compile the best possible record," not just for himself, but for his potential heir, Vice President Al Gore.

Clinton has signaled that in a second term he would focus more on the issue that legitimized his gubernatorial years: education. Earlier this week, he made literacy a goal for all children by the third grade. He is likely to restructure public education, seeking new national standards and calling for computers in every classroom. He has already made two years of college a minimum goal for adults, and seeks a college-tuition tax credit.

A second Clinton term would probably return to health care, albeit more cautiously. Instead of an overhaul, Clinton says he would seek expanded health-care insurance for children and extended coverage for laid-off workers. Clinton is likely to stress retraining for adults caught in the shifting economy, and offer tax incentives to employers to hire welfare recipients.

Then there are the unknowns of a second term. The economy has been growing for five straight years. Given growth cycles since the 1970s, a recession is possible in the next four years.

And there is the question of Congress. A Democratic majority this fall could give momentum to a second term, although the margin of control would likely be slim and the houses divided. Republicans are positioned to retain the Senate. And if Republicans keep control, says Sam Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, "Clinton controls the sane center."

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