Clinton's victories at home belie his image as a bungler abroad

Click to follow
The Independent Online
HAPPY was the President who arrived at Boeing Field for trade talks with countries of the Asia-Pacific region. His credentials as a trade negotiator had suddenly become impeccable. For the first time in his 300 days in the White House, Bill Clinton looked like a leader.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) remains mysterious to voters; it is unclear how much impact it will have. But its survival in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, a few weeks after it had been written off as a dead duck, was Mr Clinton's most important political achievement to date.

The reaction of analysts was instant: Mr Clinton was no longer a wobbler. He may have bought victory by scattering political bribes around Capitol Hill, but he had not wavered in his commitment to the treaty or the principle of free trade.

Mr Clinton's retreats over gays in the military, over appointments to his cabinet and over Bosnia were, briefly, forgotten. But even before the Nafta vote, evidence was mounting that the President is not the bungler of conventional wisdom (not in domestic affairs at any rate).

Two recent studies suggest that, during the first year of his term, he has had more success in pushing legislation through Capitol Hill than any president in modern political history. He is even out-performing Lyndon Johnson, still remembered as the all-time champion congressional arm-twister. One study, compiled by the Congressional Quarterly magazine, calculated that 88.6 per cent of legislation sponsored or supported by the President has succeeded.

After his election victory a year ago, most Clinton-watchers would have predicted a presidency along similar lines to that of John F Kennedy (assassinated 30 years ago tomorrow): there was to be plenty of competence and charm on the surface, but little achievement. But the Clinton presidency has been the opposite: a public-relations disaster masking a record of halting, but steady domestic achievement.

'Mr Clinton and Congress are in fact very much in synch,' remarked Norman Ornstein, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. 'And on the really big issues that have come before Congress, by which we might define a president, he has won.'

Even more telling than the CQ study is a second paper by two political scientists, John Bond of A & M University in Texas and Richard Fleischer of Fordham University, which looked only at those votes they considered to be (a remarkable new politico-academic word) 'conflictual' for the President.

Their analysis suggested that Mr Clinton won 91.3 per cent of these votes in the House and 92.6 per cent in the Senate. Surveying Mr Clinton's reputation as an under-achiever, Mr Fleischer said: 'Obviously, perceptions and reality don't always mesh.' In 1965, in Mr Johnson's first year after a landslide election win, his Senate 'win-rate' was 89.4 per cent. The importance of such batting averages should not be exaggerated. There was a stack of initiatives - for instance, to lift restrictions on abortion and a measure to allow Americans to register as voters on collection of their drivers' licences - that had been repeatedly vetoed by George Bush, and were simply waiting for release once Mr Clinton assumed office. And the President does, after all, have a Democratic majority in both houses. But there are also substantial achievements: family leave, which allows time off work in the event of childbirth and medical crisis, and the launch of his national service programme that will allow students to pay back part of their college education loans through community service. On Friday, the Senate approved Mr Clinton's crime bill to put 100,000 new police officers on the streets.

Other perceptions that took hold in the early weeks of the Clinton administration are also crumbling. The President has proven that he can muster bi- partisan support. In the battle for his budget programme not one Republican crossed the line to support him, but it was mainly Republicans who secured victory for him last week. It signalled, special counsellor David Gergen suggested last week, 'a new era of floating coalitions'.

Mr Clinton, of course, cannot afford to rest on his laurels. Impressive though his conquering of the Nafta opposition was, it pales beside the challenge that lies ahead on health care reform.

His enchanced authority as master of Congress may help him, but the Democratic Party was badly fractured by the Nafta controversy. Crafting a compromise over achieving universal health care will stretch the President's talents still further.

(Photograph omitted)