Leading Article: A confused man in a deep hole

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TEXAS is Bill Clinton's Newbury: a slap in the face by a disgruntled electorate. The landslide victory by a Republican in the election for the Senate seat vacated by Lloyd Bentsen, the new Treasury Secretary, is deeply humiliating. It is true that Texas went to George Bush in the presidential election, but that was by a narrow margin. The size of the Republican victory in a seat held by a senior and respected Democrat can only be seen as a vote of no confidence in the president. It will further damage him by encouraging members of Congress to seek popularity by voting against his legislative proposals.

The parallels with Newbury nearly end there, but not quite. Mr Clinton, like Mr Major, has alienated important sections of his own party and his approval rating in the opinion polls has broken records. At 36 per cent it is the lowest of any post-war president after four months in office. As a result, the general view in Washington, Europe and elsewhere is that Mr Clinton's presidency is a disaster. The only serious disagreement is over whether he can recover.

The first clue to answering that question will emerge from Mr Clinton's efforts to reform the White House itself. The mess there has been at the root of his problems. He has failed to impose the necessary discipline on his inexperienced staff or on himself. He is chronically late. Meetings drag on without reaching decisions, and when decisions are made they are liable to be reversed under pressure. His press relations have been appalling, largely because he tried to bypass the Washington press corps.

But there are now signs of slow change, signalled most notably by the appointment of David Gergen to take over public relations. Does this presage a new approach to the presidency as a whole? Here the problems become more complex. Mr Clinton was elected by a broad coalition of interests spanning the political spectrum. He cannot fulfil his promises to all of them. American presidents have always had to put together coalitions, but the task has become more difficult because of the fragmentation of American society, the proliferation of single-issue pressure groups and the greater mobility of American voters.

Mr Clinton will therefore have to be that much bolder in trying to develop a single unifying vision. Although he is obviously trying to consolidate the centre, there is still very little sign that he has found a real sense of direction. His tactical shifts look opportunistic because they do not serve a visible strategy. That may seem unfair to a president who has just pushed through a major economic package and who still intends to revolutionise health care. But the deficit package was much modified under pressure and the health proposals have been postponed.

Thus the impression is growing that Mr Clinton is a small, confused man who is out of his depth. However, the issue is not yet settled. Mr Clinton has climbed out of holes before. Nobody knows whether he can climb out of this one, but the hopes of millions of Americans who voted for change depend on his capacity for reinvention and recovery.