New-model Clintons rejoin the fray

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The Independent Online
A President on the road again, selling his "Middle-Class Bill of Rights". A remodelled Hillary Clinton, softer-styled, warm-hearted, even contrite. The appointment of a pugnacious new Democratic national chairman. One way and another, America was reminded yesterday that another party does exist in the country, and its leader is William Jefferson Clinton.

Apart from his tax-cut proposals of mid-December and an outwardly cordial White House session with the incoming Republican leadership last week, Mr Clinton has been virtually invisible since the election hurricane which flattened the Democrats on 8 November.

Reasons abound to explain this uncharacteristic behaviour: shock, pragmatic acknowledgement that Newt Gingrich is the only media show in town, and the hope that if, given enough political rope, the new Speaker may destroy himself far more effectively than the Democrats ever could. But the monastic phase is drawing to a close.

In a Newsweek article the First Lady takes Mr Gingrich and the Republicans to task over welfare, orphanages and family values. Yesterday came another salvo of interviews in which she admits for the first time her responsibility for the health-care fiasco.

The First Lady who emerges here is not the caricature of the liberal harridan etched by the talk-show hosts, but one who by her own admission was "naive and dumb" in her failure to appreciate the political realities. She is surprised by how she comes across: "I read and hear things about me, and I go `Ugh, I wouldn't like her either'."

A kinder, gentler 1995 model Hillary would be a triumph for the White House image-makers as they prepare for the presidential battle of the following year. But more important is the projection of a more purposeful, determined, concise President, leading a party which has not simply folded its tent and left the field.

Yesterday Mr Clinton went to the Illinois heartlands to propound his Bill of Rights, an overdue delivery of some 1992 campaign promises which includes tax credits for students, and improved job training, but designed to steal some of the Republicans' government-bashing, tax-cutting limelight.

In the next few weeks come the State of the Union address and the 1995/96 budget proposal. Both will be pointers to how Mr Clinton mixes co-operation and confrontation as he copes with a Congress in the hands of the opposite party.

Personnel changes are giving clues as well. The confrontation will be provided by Christopher Dodd, the incoming Democratic Chairman. The Conneticut Senator is a fighter who relishes attacking the Republicans. Because of his Senate duties, Mr Dodd will have a deputy to handle day-to-day business.

If style is anything, the voice of co-operation will be the much-liked Mike McCurry, a White House spokesman respected on all sides who unlike most in the Clinton entourage, has the advantage of actually enjoying dealing with the media.