Power of persuasion, or talking to the wind?

Clinton may be a 'great communicator,' but he's had trouble translating his bully pulpit skills into legislative results.

With no political muscle to strong-arm Congress, President Clinton's using one of the few options he has left: his powers of persuasion.

In his last year in office, Mr. Clinton is unleashing a torrent of rhetoric on such issues as gun control, a Medicare drug benefit, and permanent trade status for China. The hope is that Congress will knuckle under if the president can build enough public pressure for his agenda.

Considering his mastery of the microphone - and his limited influence as an impeached president heading for the exit - it's as good a strategy as any, political observers say. But they caution that while Clinton's speechifying may well shape the debate for this fall's elections, it's not likely to yield much in the way of legislative results.

Indeed, it's shaping up as one of the central ironies of Clinton's presidency: Although he may be remembered as one of the "great communicators," alongside leaders like Reagan and FDR, he has been largely unable to mobilize the public enough to push his ideas through a balking Congress.

"The last president who could really mobilize the public was Ronald Reagan. As popular as [Clinton] is, he still doesn't carry the same kind of clout in terms of converting that into political pressure on Capitol Hill," says Leon Panetta, former Clinton chief of staff and a congressman during the Reagan era.

And while the public may naturally empathize with the president's poll-tested ideas, these days it's hard for any single subject to move them up off the comfy couch of economic prosperity, Mr. Panetta explains.

At the same time, many members of the Republican-controlled Congress still have a visceral dislike of Clinton, and are unwilling to move in his direction, regardless of popular opinion.

That doesn't stop the White House from trying, of course. This week, for instance, the president held a full-fledged East Room press conference just to urge congressional action on his policy wish list - a mantra he's been reciting since January.

And since six-year-old Kayla Rolland was shot and killed in Michigan Feb. 29, Clinton has broadcast two radio addresses on gun control, summoned congressional leaders to the West Wing, held a rally of supporters under the chandeliers in the residence, and interviewed his way through network and cable TV. Along with his Cabinet's full-court press on China's trade status, it's been one of the most sustained PR efforts since the Yugoslav airstrikes last year.

Nonetheless, it was the threat of legal action - and not a galvanized public hounding Congress - that convinced leading handgun manufacturer Smith & Wesson to agree to gun-safety measures and restrictions on gun sales two weeks ago.

In fact, the president's appeals for "common sense" gun legislation have not pushed Americans into phone, fax, or e-mail overdrive, says a GOP staffer in the House. The phones have not been ringing off the hook in the office of Illinois Rep. Henry Hyde (R), nor in the crucial House Judiciary Committee he chairs. Neither has there been a stampede to the Senate Judiciary Committee or the Speaker of the House.

"When Ronald Reagan used to give these press conferences or these speeches at 8 o'clock at night, and he'd say, 'We need this missile-defense system - if you believe that, too, you need to call your congressman,' this place would get slammed in the morning," the House staffer recalled.

Yet Clinton, considered every ounce the "great communicator" Reagan was, has tried talking up many big-ticket issues in the past, but without success.

They include his push last fall for a comprehensive test-ban treaty, his support for tobacco taxes and campaign-finance overhaul, his plea for fast-track trading authority, and of course, healthcare

reform early in his administration. This year's agenda of a minimum-wage hike, a patient's bill of rights, and Medicare drug benefits is, in fact, a second try at last year's failed priorities.

That's not to say Clinton hasn't had some big wins, including NAFTA, his economic plan in 1993, the balanced-budget agreement, and welfare reform. But some of those were issues that already enjoyed Republican support.

"I think the rhetorical power of the president depends on the issue he's pressing and on the times," says James Thurber, director of congressional and presidential studies at American University here. Right now, he says, circumstances aren't great for Clinton - no matter how skilled he is. Neither were they good for Reagan in his last years, when his administration was under investigation for the Iran-Contra scandal.

Political observers say that the real power of the president's rhetoric is not to effect legislative change, but to shape the overall political debate to support Democrats in this fall's elections. By seizing centrist issues and painting Republicans as risky tax cutters and extremists, he's brought the country the first two-term Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt, and the House back to within a hair's breadth of Democratic control.

This year, "he's really just trying to influence the agenda for swing voters," says Sarah Binder, political analyst at the Brookings Institution here. Indeed, suburban swing voters appear to be the key to this fall's presidential election.

Marshall Wittmann, congressional analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation, agrees. "Probably what he views as his primary task in 2000 is that Al Gore succeeds him and that the Democrats regain control at least of the House."

Still, Patrick Griffin, a former Clinton congressional liaison, still sees hope for gun control or a patient's bill of rights this year. Republicans are on the wrong side of both issues, he explains. Leaving them as debate fodder for the election "doesn't work for them, it works against them."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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