Clinton's Centrism Galvanizes Liberals

Balanced-budget deal could unravel as the left struggles to hold on to its traditional ideals

President Clinton, always struggling to balance competing interests in his own party, today stands more estranged from liberal Democrats than at any time in his presidency.

While there are always tensions between sitting presidents and their parties - particularly in an era of divided government - the cleavage is growing as the president moves toward the center on many issues and increasingly cuts deals with GOP moderates.

The result is affecting coalitions on Capitol Hill and could affect loyalties in the presidential race in 2000. "Relations are at the lowest point they've ever been in my estimation," says Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts.

While Mr. Clinton has moved closer to the political center, the left has remained ideologically anchored. In fact, Clinton's drift toward a more pro-business, deficit-cutting agenda seems to have galvanized the left's defense of traditional ideals as well as some of its constituencies, such as labor and the underprivileged.

As Mr. Clinton returns tonight from his trip to Latin America, which focused on soothing relations with the America's southern neighbors, the president has plenty of patching up to do in his own party if he wants to see his fragile budget deal make it through.

Mr. Frank considers the president's exclusion of key Democrats during the budget negotiating process damaging. He stops short, however, of saying Mr. Clinton sold the party out. Nevertheless, he believes it clearly ratcheted up tensions between party factions - perhaps even more so than the internecine fight over welfare reform.

Still, some liberals dispel the idea that House Democrats are in the midst of a civil war. They note that it is nothing like party schisms in the past over issues like Vietnam and civil rights.

The president, for his part, seems unlikely to change course now. His approval ratings remain high - well above 50 percent in most polls. With that level of popularity, analysts say the president will see the balanced-budget plan through even if means alienating liberals.

"Clinton views his Democratic liberals as quaint ... and irrelevant," says Craig Crawford, editor of "The Hotline," a Washington-based political newsletter. " His heart may be with them, but his political calculator isn't."

The budget outline the White House agreed to is designed to balance the nation's books in the next five years. It does so even as it offers a reduction in capital gains and estate taxes. It comes at a cost, though - savings from entitlement programs. As lawmakers begin filling in the details of the agreement, members of both parties are expressing concern that the deal could fall through.

Past is prologue

Clinton is far from the first to sit in the Oval Office and offend his own party. Scholars say the path to the political center has been well worn by many presidents, particularly when government is divided. George Bush, they point out, was criticized often by conservatives in his party.

"The House is bifurcated," says James Thurber, a professor at American University. "Clinton has problems as he goes to the middle. He loses people on the left and the right."

For now, most of the loss is on the left. And while Clinton never ran as a far-left candidate, some observers believe he is leading from the center as a matter of philosophy, not just out of necessity. That perception seems to sting liberals even more.

He's "going to need some friends with these campaign hearings coming up," says Charles Jones, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin. "And with the independent counsel issue still in the air, I can't imagine he thinks its good to turn off his own party."

The GOP-led hearings on campaign finance are expected to begin in the House and Senate in a matter of weeks. Both will focus on determining if foreign entities sought to influence the last election through illegal campaign contributions.

Perhaps even more important than seeking cover from Republican-led committees, Clinton still needs party unity on some issues and must rally the rank-and-file for mid-term elections and the presidential race in 2000.

"They are not all matters of pure philosophy - of liberal and conservative ," Mr. Thurber says. "It cuts various ways on some issues."

Impact on mid-term races

Indeed, some liberals believe the Clinton budget deal has undercut their chances in 1998 congressional elections. Historically, mid-term elections in the second term of a president have not been kind to the incumbent party. Now many believe Clinton has taken away a potent political issue. "What the deal suggests for 1998 is that the president is perfectly willing to stick a pin in the principal campaign pitch that Democrats have had - tax cuts for the rich taken from Medicare cuts," says Jones.

Despite the tensions, the president will have to rely on key Democrats to move the budget. Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, an early critic, has now warmed somewhat to the plan. In the House, minority leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri, a possible presidential contender in 2000, is more problematic.

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