The Clintons' Party Problems

The Democrats' little secret is that the president's continued popularity, despite scandal, has papered over a wide schism among the party faithful. That, in large part, is what's behind those recently convened strategy sessions in the White House, led by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. The conferees are seeking ways - and, particularly, actions the president can take - to heal that split before the November election.

Also, of course, the strategists are trying to decide what can be done about those Democratic candidates who are distancing themselves from the president. Then, there is a most pressing task on the agenda: The determination of how much the president will campaign and where he will be welcome.

Back in January of 1995, the acknowledged leader of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, Sen. Edward Kennedy, expressed his distress over the rightward tilt President Clinton was bringing about within the party. Speaking at the National Press Club, the Massachusetts senator said, emphatically, that old-time liberalism should not be abandoned.

Without citing Mr. Clinton by name but certainly including him by implication, Mr. Kennedy scorned Democrats who have moved toward the right. "We do not need a second Republican Party," he fairly shouted. The audience, obviously including many fans of the Kennedys, roared approval.

The senator's message that day clearly was meant for Clinton's ears. Some observers at the time even concluded that Kennedy was about to break with the president. Indeed, one of the questions his speech brought forth was, "Are you going to take on Clinton in the primaries?" He said, "no," but then looked at the young man on his right at the head table and said, "I can't speak for my nephew, Joe Kennedy."

Well, that liberal challenge to Clinton never surfaced. Joe Kennedy has dropped out of the political picture, at least for now. And a Clinton who had pretty much embraced the Republican agenda - of balancing the budget, reforming welfare, supporting some tax reduction - breezed to renomination. Liberals grumbled, but they never mounted a serious effort to displace the president on the ballot.

Clinton called himself a "new Democrat." But during the campaign of 1996 he sounded very much like a Republican to many voters. So he picked up a lot of Republican support as he put together his reelection. Conservative Democrats voted for him, many of whom could at times be persuaded to move over and vote for a Republican in presidential races. And the liberal Democrats? Most of them, it seems, voted for Clinton because they thought they had no other place to go.

Since the election, the president has sought to win back the liberals. He has pushed educational programs. And he has given strong backing to anti-tobacco legislation. Kennedy is one of those leading the battle against Big Tobacco in Congress.

Additionally, Clinton has involved himself heavily in the politics of liberalism. He never misses a chance to show up at a disaster. He hugs and he consoles. He certainly shows he cares. Then he sees to it that relief funds are quickly made available. I don't doubt that Clinton's show of compassion is genuine. But I think he and his vice president aren't unmindful that such expressions of caring are in the best tradition of old-time liberalism.

But all this hasn't been enough to satisfy many liberals. They will argue that liberalism - shaping and supporting programs to help those in need - has been the centerpiece of Democratic philosophy since Franklin D. Roosevelt. They see Clinton and his "new Democrats" abandoning that ideology. And they contend that liberals today are embattled in a fight to save the soul of the party.

Obviously, Mrs. Clinton and her fellow strategists can, at best, only hack away at their many problems. Indeed, as gloom from the Starr report settles over the White House, how can Mrs. Clinton think of anything else except the plight of her embattled husband?

It's because of all these Democratic problems that the Republicans have become solid favorites in the November congressional elections.

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