New Hope for a Clinton Legacy

This week's elections give Clinton a chance to forward his domestic agenda, including Social Security reform.

Invigorated by this week's midterm elections, Bill Clinton is determined to defy the history of lame-duck presidents and put his mark on the last two years of his term.

With the impeachment threat receding, it's possible that President Clinton can advance items on his domestic agenda - most likely Social Security reform.

But this can only happen, say analysts, if the president moves quickly, before presidential campaigning starts next fall, and if he can coax Republicans and his own party toward center ground.

"Clearly, the White House position is strengthened by Tuesday's results," says Marshall Wittmann, director of congressional relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation here.

Mr. Wittmann ventures that the hallmark of the new legislative session could be "a grand deal" that links the chief Democratic priority of Social Security reform with the chief GOP priority of a tax cut.

But generally speaking, the determiner of progress over the next two years is "whether the White House and Congress have the political will to strike a deal that inflames parts of their coalitions," says Wittmann.

If they don't, any movement toward a big bargain could founder. Washington might once again be caught in the political situation that causes many voters to roll their eyes: gridlock.

Yesterday, the president emphasized bipartisanship in Oval Office talks with House and Senate Democratic leaders. "The American people sent us a message that would break your ear drums if anyone was listening.... They want their future and their issues taken care of," he said.

From the point of view of the White House, those issues include a patients' bill of rights, Social Security reform, school modernization, and an increase in the minimum wage.

Several trends emerged from this week's elections that put the president in a better position to advance his agenda:

* Impeachment deflated. Voters made it clear that this election was not about impeachment. One exit poll found 58 percent of voters want Congress to drop the whole impeachment matter.

House Judiciary chairman Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois has outlined a slimmed down process in which the panel would call only one main witness - independent counsel Kenneth Starr - and then vote on articles of impeachment by Thanksgiving. The big unknown is what else Mr. Starr will bring to the committee.

* History overturned. Democrats gained five seats in the House - the first time since 1934 the president's party gained seats in the House in a midterm election.

* Moderate voters. Exit polls also show that the proportion of voters who described themselves as moderates increased from 45 percent in 1994 to 50 percent this year. "The American people are in the middle. They want to see stuff done," says David Brady, professor of political science at Stanford University in California.

But getting "stuff done" requires the president and congressional leadership to work together - and right now, it's not clear where the GOP leadership is taking its members or even if current leaders will survive.

GOP leaders attract ire

Many Republicans are angry with House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi for caving in on the budget, letting the Democrats control the message in elections, and making too much of impeachment - all resulting in a historically bad showing for the GOP Tuesday.

The Speaker has been told to watch his back, and Rep. Bob Livingston (R) of Louisiana reportedly phoned Mr. Gingrich to suggest he consider stepping down.

Without strong leadership, it will be impossible for the president to accomplish much with Congress, say analysts. One sign of Republican intentions will be if Mr. Gingrich or Mr. Lott - or their representatives - accept a White House invitation to a Social Security conference Dec. 8 and 9.

Dangers for the president and his agenda lie within his own party, as well. Clinton is now indebted to liberal Democrats, such as African-Americans and union members who helped deliver the historic Democratic results Tuesday. These constituencies are not likely to want to tinker with Social Security, for instance, or be willing to support the president's drive for ever freer trade in the distressed global economy.

Perhaps more fundamental is the fact that this Congress looks so much like the last Congress, which this year accomplished little until a last-minute push produced a big omnibus budget bill.

"The future doesn't look an awful lot different from the past," says Stephen Hess, political analyst at the Brookings Institution.

What voters reelected was a Congress with only a narrow Republican majority. That means that it is relatively easy for any legislative faction with its own agenda to bring things to a halt.

Looking ahead to 2000

Meanwhile, it won't be long before the leadership of both parties is gearing up for the 2000 elections. "It's a formula for gridlock," says Mr. Hess, a longtime observer of Washington politics.

Still, never underestimate this president, who works best when his back is to the wall.

"This man has an unusual ability to lead. If he were an athlete, he'd be Mr. October," says Roy Romer, general chairman of the Democratic Party.

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