A White House pulled in three directions

Inside Politics

Ever before has the White House had so many high-profile political agendas in play under one roof. The vice president wants to be president. The president wants to establish a positive legacy. And the first lady is exploring a bid for the United States Senate.

Already, this three-ring circus - which gives new meaning to the term "triangulation" - has produced some major snafus and policy clashes, most recently the flap between the Clintons over the clemency offer for Puerto Rican nationalists. Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore have also exchanged testy headlines over the running of Gore's campaign.

One White House aide calls the scene at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue "interesting," but plays down reports that the three power centers are competing for staff talent, fund-raising dollars, and media attention. At the very least, all three principals will have to work hard to find the right balance with one another. And in an important way, they all share the same goal: to move their largely common political agendas forward.

For political junkies, the transformation of the White House into a hothouse of political ambitions is uniquely fascinating. For the rest of the viewing public, it could give rise to concerns about the running of government.

But as the Clinton years wind down and both parties look to the 2000 elections, neither party has high hopes for any major policy accomplishments anyway.

Of the three main actors in this drama, Gore and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton face the trickier challenge. In essence they are the president's political children, and with that status come benefits as well as burdens.

Both Gore and Mrs. Clinton "can benefit from the aura of the White House," says Martha Joynt Kumar, an expert on the presidency at Towson State University in Maryland. "But does the White House have enough room to provide both of them with that aura? That's something we will see."

Ms. Kumar also warns against assuming that Gore and the first lady will naturally be in competition. "That's an assumption, not necessarily a reality," she says. "This is a unique situation."

When Mr. Clinton first assumed the presidency, Mrs. Clinton appeared to have the upper hand as his top deputy, as he assigned her control of his central policy initiative: health-care reform. That failed, and Mrs. Clinton moved into a more traditional role as first lady. Gore, meanwhile, earned a reputation as the most substantively involved vice president in history.

Now, both Gore and Mrs. Clinton - who is exploring a run for the Senate from New York - face the challenge of establishing political identities separate from their connection to Bill Clinton, which brings the baggage of the Clinton scandals - from Whitewater to Monica Lewinsky.

Recent polls have confirmed a growing sense of "Clinton fatigue" among the public. A Washington Post poll this week showed an increase over the past six months in the number of Americans who want the next president to take the country in a new direction, from 39 percent in March to 47 percent now.

That, combined with Texas Gov. George W. Bush's continued dominance over Gore in polls matching them in the 2000 presidential race, is cause for edginess among Gore supporters. The Gore campaign puts on a brave face: It's still early, they say. And embedded in that Post poll were signs of hope.

Though the public views Governor Bush as a stronger leader than Gore, the public also still reports it doesn't know Gore very well. There's plenty of time for the public to get to know Gore, campaign advisers say.

In addition, says one campaign aide, "the public comes back to the underlying factors of peace and prosperity, year after year, election after election."

He notes, too, that in 1988 when then-Vice President Bush ran for president against Michael Dukakis, he didn't pull ahead of the Democrat in the polls until late summer of 1988, the election year itself.

"Gore has a problem here," says Stephen Wayne, an expert on presidential elections at Georgetown University here. "He's got to be his own man. But he's also got to run on the record of the Clinton-Gore administration. So I think, for the most part, you're going to see little changes on some of the more popular policy areas."

One example, he says, is Gore's proposal on health care outlined this week.

He promised access to health care for all children by 2005, a less ambitious agenda than Clinton's health-care-for-all proposal at the start of his presidency.

But that is a mere difference in nuance compared with the flap over Puerto Rican nationalists that has erupted between the Clintons.

Last month the president offered clemency to 16 members of a Puerto Rican terrorist group. Then on Saturday, Mrs. Clinton called on her husband to revoke that offer, igniting a storm of opposition from New York Hispanic leaders. She has since worked to smooth over the feelings of this important constituency.

The irony is that when Mr. Clinton made the clemency offer, he was accused of trying to help his wife's exploratory campaign. What the brouhaha shows is that, if Mrs. Clinton does indeed run for the Senate, every move the president makes that has a New York angle will be closely scrutinized for any hidden agenda to help his wife.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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