First-year team neglects its homework

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The Independent Online
BILL CLINTON is trying to do too much. The President has piled his plate so full that he and his aides have difficulty keeping up, or, more important, concentrating on the main events. The reason he suffered political defeat last week on his economic stimulus programme was not due to its lack of substance; he was forced to retreat from Republican assault, despite greater Democratic numbers, because of inattention to politics and lack of a clear legislative strategy.

The lessons from Ronald Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt and other successful first-term US presidents are clear: propose only a few big initiatives, and make sure they happen. The issues on Clinton's 'early agenda' are awesome: Bosnia, trade confrontations with Europe and Japan, one of the biggest tax increases in US history, job creation, deficit reduction, a US-led Russian initiative, defence reductions, a technology policy, gays in the military and, perhaps most important, a national health care system.

The atmosphere at the White House is tense among overworked and overstretched aides who are bone-tired and stressed. There is a competition, not unreminiscent of the Jimmy Carter years, to see who can work the longest - and the strain is beginning to show. A routine statement from the White House press office identified the visiting Lech Walesa as the president of the Czech Republic. A visiting Baltimore businessman, a long-time FOB (friend of Bill's), arrived at the White House for a scheduled dinner only to be told that a harassed aide was too busy to see him. (He triumphed in the end. On the way out he ran into the President, who invited him to dine.)

Last week's Senate defeat of Mr Clinton's proposed dollars 16bn economic stimulus programme was an important political setback because the Republican minority proved that it could win a confrontation despite greater Democratic votes. The programme itself was modest, in relation to overall US spending, and worthy: extending the term for jobless insurance benefits, which are small in relation to other OECD countries; establishing a national immunisation programme for children, at a time when such diseases as tuberculosis are again breaking out in inner cities; and creating jobs for the unemployed, in public works programmes to rebuild highways, bridges and other crumbling infrastructure. Some elements of the Clinton stimulus programme harked back to the Reagan years, when they were backed solidly by Republicans. But this time around, using the Senate's arcane rules of closure and filibuster, the Republican minority was able to bury stimulus and ignore bipartanship.

It was a costly defeat for Mr Clinton that need not have happened. Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson, the late Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, and other masters of the legislative game would never have been forced into retreat without making the opposition pay. Having neglected early to build bipartisan support and craft a backup strategy, the Clinton team fell victim to Robert Dole, the Senate minority leader. He held his troops in line and played to public sentiment against 'big spending' programmes that could not be paid for in times of deficit. Democrats, meanwhile, were pushing for all or nothing, without getting the message across that this was not a big spend.

The politics of new economic proposals are equally as important as the substance, and this was overlooked by the Democratic majority. Mr Clinton was forced into embarrassing compromises that came to naught. The Senate leadership looks particularly bad, following earlier House approval of the programme, for failing to regroup. George Mitchell, the majority leader, and others in the Democratic leadership should have had a fallback position to break the stimulus programme into pieces, forcing the Republican minority to risk losing public support by voting against such popular measures as child immunisation. Only now is the administration proposing this strategy - probably too late.

The reason for dwelling on this first big legislative loss is to show how vulnerable Mr Clinton may become in the months ahead, when his really important economic initiatives come before Congress. The administration's budget, the separate tax bills to pay for it, and a national health care programme all lie ahead. Given its complexity, the health care programme looks particularly vulnerable.

There is no golden rule that new programmes must be pushed out in a president's first 100 days. Far better to delay national health care reform - to pay more attention to its many strands and build public support through concerted administration and congressional action. The polls show health care is too important to bungle.

Meanwhile, Mr Clinton and his strategists should concentrate on deficit reduction, using the legislative talents of Vice-President Al Gore, who is too busy with other things (energy reform and overhauling the bureaucracy) to be truly effective.