Amazing] Clinton's proved me right

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THOSE of us who cover election campaigns have the problem of what might be called after-sales service. To what extent should we keep quiet about campaign reports endorsing politicians who then perform uncertainly in office?

Some adopt the chartered surveyor's approach: that, if the house should subsequently fall down, it is the result of some factor not visible at the time of inspection. I escaped the dilemma for some time, having been snide to the right and relatively gentle to the left in reporting the British elections of 1987 and 1992, and the US election of 1988. This was like betting on soccer games that are snowed-off. You can argue that Neil Kinnock would not have been a good prime minister, but you can't tell me he wasn't.

So Bill Clinton represents my first problem in this line: the only candidate I have, as it were, voted for in prose who subsequently got into office. Looking at the President's early efforts - the reverse on gays in the military, the difficulty in finding an Attorney-General nominee who had not broken the law, the apparent deadlock with a Congress that has a Democratic majority - I was contemplating adopting the chartered surveyor's line: these cracks, regrettable though they are, have developed since our report of 1992.

So it comes as a surprise that, after three weeks travelling round the United States, I can plausibly write an upbeat account of President Clinton's first year in office.

All leaders experience good weeks, but few seven-day spells of government have been as successful as the one this month in which Clinton pushed through the North American Free Trade Agreement (late, messily, but with an overall machismo that played well on television); presided over a Pacific Rim summit in which he was the undisputed big guy not merely by virtue of being about a foot taller than most delegates; stood up for the Brady Bill, a largely symbolic but honourable attempt at gun control, and ended the American Airlines strike, on the eve of potential Thanksgiving holiday chaos, by persuading both sides to go to binding arbitration.

Some of this was luck, but Clinton played smart cards. The administration's idea of a live Nafta TV debate - with the solid Vice-President Gore baiting the bill's most prominent opponent, Ross Perot, was brave, imaginative and, unlike many such moves in politics, worked. As for the aviation dispute, someone in the administration spotted both that American Airlines might be glad of a way out of a strike that had proved more solid than expected, and that here was a way of rehabilitating organised labour, which had opposed Clinton over Nafta.

Okay, cynics may say, but one good week doesn't redeem a lousy first year. In fact, even before the seven days in which Clinton apparently recreated his world, he had been the most successful first-year president in modern history in terms of passing his intended legislation. That the general perception is exactly the opposite perhaps illustrates the seeming need of media and electorates to see leaders as perpetual failures.

Liberal idealists might object that the real story here is that a candidate who promised change has merely learnt, within a year, to play the standard power games. But less idealistic liberals would reply that to expect elected left-wing politicians to do anything else is like turning on a rugby pitch with a cricket ball. And, anyway, Clinton has, even once safely in Washington, voiced policies radical by prevailing American standards: deficit reduction this year, health care next.

Perhaps most important, the Clinton who impressed the press in 1992 is clearly the same as the one installed in the White House. Bill Clinton has established a clear pattern of behaviour: running for president, he was prone to reverses, regularly written off by pundits, yet somehow always finally triumphant. His first year in the White House has reproduced that graph. These are not bad biorhythms for a politician to have.

Admittedly, in the area of foreign affairs, Clinton's first-year report card needs to be marked in red ink. This understandably distresses commentators in London and Bosnia, from their different perspectives but, to be fair, what has happened is no more than Clinton promised during the campaign. He pledged to reverse the Bush administration's concentration on foreign affairs. I was there on several occasions when he said it. Whether or not you approve of this aim, we clearly have here a rare and spectacular example of an electoral pledge being kept.

It is also the case that, if the administration maintains its recent momentum, performance in this area could be improved in one significant way. Clinton made Warren Christopher, a senior ex-Carter grandee, his Secretary of State from a well-meaning desire to acknowledge his own lack of foreign competence and calm the diplomatic markets. The fact that Christopher has instilled in distant capitals a kind of neurotic insomnia is unfortunate but, given a reasonable period free from crisis, the White House would be in a position to do a switch.

I also feel that democrats everywhere, as opposed to mere Democrats, would do well to cross their fingers for President Clinton. There is good reason to believe that he represents the last chance of conventional American politics. Ross Perot has been written off by the American press for at least the fourth time in his short career - after being Gored in the television debate on Nafta. For the first time, polls show that a majority of Americans believe Perot is motivated by his own ambitions. In other words, the outsider has become a conventional politician.

Yet the fragmentation of political debate which allowed the Texan tycoon's rise last year is still apparent in America, a mood underlined by the presence at 1 and 2 on the New York Times hardback bestseller list of books by Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh, the 'shock jocks', radio talk-show hosts who specialise in being politically incorrect, and correcting Clinton's politics.

The 1996 election, it seems to me, may be very vulnerable to a slightly more plausible nut than Perot. And the Clinton administration is the last line of defence against that temptation. The first signs of barbed wire being laid should, therefore, be welcomed.

It is very odd, in these times, to write a column containing some optimism for the left. Admittedly - all too well aware now of the Clinton cycle of confounding his supporters and his critics in rotation - I have taken the precaution of having this column printed in a special dissolving ink, which lasts only a few weeks. Even so, a month ago, I was planning to use invisible ink.